Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Sanders’ contradiction on trade and immigration

It is hard to imagine two politicians that are further apart ideologically than Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Nonetheless, these two presidential candidates have a lot in common: their outsider status, their unrealistic fiscal plans, and a desire to punish foreigners for America’s economic problems. And while Trump makes no bones about his disdain for foreigners, Sanders’ anti-foreigner policy does not match his kinder, gentler rhetoric.

Both campaigns are built on the candidate-as-outsider principle. Trump is the proud non-politician who says outrageous things, and promises to fix Washington so that we won’t be a country of losers anymore. Sanders is a self-proclaimed democratic socialist: it is tough to get much further outside mainstream American politics than by declaring yourself a socialist of any kind.

Both candidates present wildly unrealistic tax and spending plans, which would blow up the federal deficit, according to independent analyses.

And both want to punish foreigners for America’s economic problems.

Trump is the more outspoken of the two, blaming Mexican immigrants for all manner of domestic ills: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” He will build a wall to keep them out and have the Mexicans pay for it. And as for Muslims, to paraphrase Walter Mondale’s characterization of Ronald Reagan’s view of handicapped people: “If you’re a Muslim who wants to immigrate to the United States, well you shouldn’t be.”

Trump has also made it clear that he is opposed to free trade, threatening to impose a 45% tariff on Chinese imports and a steep tariffs on American manufacturers like Ford or Carrier, who set up shop in Mexico and attempt to import products into the United States.

How does Sanders fit into the Trump “punish foreigners” mold? After all, his views on immigration could hardly be more different than those of Trump. He favors a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, proposes easing barriers to asylum seekers, and opposes the current detention and deportation system and the militarization of the US border.

Although Sanders is happy to welcome immigrants to work in the United States, like Trump he is vehemently opposed to helping them work in their home countries—if that results in increased imports to the United States. Sanders takes pride in having opposed every trade deal ever presented to Congress, including NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), CAFTA (the Central America Free Trade Agreement), and the normalization of trade relations with China.

Last fall Senator Sanders stated, “I do not want American workers to compete against people in Vietnam who make 56 cents an hour.” Although Sanders’ well-meaning approach to immigration might result in allowing a few more Vietnamese immigrants to the United States, he could improve the lives and increase the wages of a far greater fraction of Vietnam’s 90 million people—as well as helping American consumers–by allowing them to sell the product of their labor in the United States.

Freer trade helps low-cost producers find a market for their goods and high-cost producers somewhere to buy goods more cheaply than it would cost to produce at home. The results are not universal, of course. Some industries are hurt by trade, others are helped. And the lack of universal labor and environmental standards means that we accept some bad practices overseas in exchange for cheaper imports. Nonetheless, trade helps lift living standards both at home and abroad. Neither Sanders nor Trump seem to understand this.

What distinguishes Sanders from Trump is that he actually gives a damn about people who are not native-born Americans. This is admirable. And using America’s position as a major player in the global economy to promote fair labor practices and more strict environmental standards around the world should be high on the agenda of the next president.

Nonetheless, Sanders’ policy of being kind to foreigners when they want to immigrate, but hostile to them when they want to stay home and sell us stuff makes no sense.

Featured image credit: US-Mexico border at Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico; and California by Tomas Castelazo. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Julian Bose

    Hardly matters now but the fact that the author won’t even mention the Trans Pacific Partnership by name says a lot about how good he knows “free” trade is for the average worker at home or abroad with unenforceable standards for labour conditions, the environment, wages etc, foreign tribunals to decide matters of legality that supercede the state’s sovereign laws both past and present including power to sue for potential corporate profits lost due to regulation by the state’s own laws, and the ability for the President(at least in the U.S.) to bypass Congress and simply ram an up or down vote through both House and Senate without debate about a given law, the bill is the latest attempt to expand corporate privilege and dominion at the expense of everyone else. Noone’s standard of living would rise except for those who already have a gilded standard of living.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *