As far as I understand, politicians on the Left side of the spectrum generally support increased welfare, strong regulation for workers rights, high minimum wage, etc. At the same time, many Left-wing politicians support increased immigration - both through the visa system and through asylum claims. However it seems obvious that increased immigration (especially when it's not highly qualified) reduces the median wage for the poorest workers, makes it easier for employers to abuse their employees, increases the number of people on welfare, etc.

So how are the two views reconciled? I could understand a Right-wing politician supporting increased immigration since it directly benefits the local companies, but it seems completely self-contradicting for the Left-wing point of view.

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    Your assertion that left wing politics supports immigration could use some examination or supporting evidence, IMO. As a North American who's lived about half of his life in each of North America's countries, that's not been my experience. A couple interesting data points on that score would be that the last immigrant amnesty in the US was under Reagan, and that Obama saw more deportations under his watch than any other president... and then there's the issue of protecting the welfare state from foreign moochers... Commented May 11, 2017 at 15:59
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    "However it seems obvious that increased immigration (especially when it's not highly qualified) reduces the median wage for the poorest workers, makes it easier for employers to abuse their employees, increases the number of people on welfare, etc." References please? Otherwise this question is based on an unsupported assertion. I have seen both arguments that immigration reduces average or lower decile wages, and those that it increases them. This does not seem at all obvious...
    – Vality
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 16:12
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    Most migrants are workers. Is the question missing some uses of words like citizen or locally born? Commented May 11, 2017 at 16:26
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    @AndrewGrimm You can restrict immigration without being racist Commented May 12, 2017 at 7:55
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    A banker, a worker, and an immigrant are sitting at a table with 20 cookies. The banker takes 19 cookies and warns the worker: “Watch out, the immigrant is going to take your cookie away.”
    – liftarn
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 13:32

7 Answers 7


I don't think that there is anything to reconcile. As you said, left-wing politicians support strong regulation for workers rights and a high minimum wage.

The poorest workers make minimum wage, so immigration should not reduce their wage. In the same manner, strong regulations should prevent employers from abusing workers.

But even if we assume that this is not how it works out in practice, the positions make sense. The motivation for protecting workers and immigrants is the same: The state must protect the most vulnerable people, those who cannot protect themselves. If that is the goal, abandoning one group in favor of the other doesn't make a lot of sense; the left generally does not have an us-vs-them ideology regarding heritage/ethnicity/race, but one based on class instead.

Instead, policies should be implemented that can protect both at the same time (higher minimum wage, better enforcement of minimum wage, more protections - and better enforcement of existing protections - for workers, etc).

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    If you fix wages but increase workers of a specific occupation with a non-zero unemployment rate (which is true for every blue-collar occupation) , unemployment will mechanically increase. Now, if you're lucky, this increase is only on the migrants side, so your natives are not affected. But in general, this is not true of course. I would good this if it had the first two paragraphs removed.
    – FooBar
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 14:11
  • @FooBar There was a long comment thread about this and similar questions, which was sadly removed. But basically, you can have other mechanisms in place to mitigate this issue (workers protections may include reduced hours at same pay level (similar to the fight for the 40 hour week), the state may finance workers education so they can enter less saturated fields, etc). Additionally, this issue may not even arise, depending on the kind of immigration.
    – tim
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 14:34
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    I agree that policies can mitigate the fact, if they are enacted (see my answer). You mention now policies that shrink firms profits (and potentially decrease employment), or retraining. These are not what I typically understand under "minimum wages" or "regulation", so I still favor rewriting the paragraphs. "Issue may not even arise" is also a much weaker assertion than "should not" [reduce their wage].
    – FooBar
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 14:40
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    The poorest workers make minimum wage, well - with a minimum wage the "poorest workers" fall into two groups. Those who have jobs and make minimum wage, and those who are now unemployed/unemployable and make nothing at all. Commented May 15, 2017 at 10:26

This a good question, because what seems intuitive is often not exactly so. In this case, immigration doesn't lower wages. For example: a 2016 report by the London School of Economics found that the parts of the UK which received the greatest number of EU immigrants suffered no worse a decline in wages than the rest of the country, and declining wages are because of the financial crisis instead.

Another 2016 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, found that over the past twenty years immigration to the USA has had little to no negative effect on the wages of native-born workers. Indeed the immigration of 40 million people over that period has had an overall positive impact economically.

Regardless of wages, uneducated individuals in developed nations can suffer negative outcomes from globalisation, inclusive of immigration. However, the left almost uniformly believes that education is a right or a proven means to promote higher incomes and quality of life.

Because of this they support greater access to education, often through free or subsidised higher education. Under Britain's socialist system from 1945-1979, higher education was free, and students from poor families were given grants to attend university. Tuition fees were only introduced in 1998. As the economy shifts from low skilled manufacturing jobs to high skilled manufacturing and service jobs, the left is happy to give people the opportunity to better themselves through education.

But that may not be the end of it. Some are happier to be materially poorer if they can have a more homogenous society, which is perceived to be spiritually, culturally, or even racially pure.

So what about "the left"? Before we can understand what they believe, we have to understand who they are. The two most obvious groups who can be described as leftist or progressive are liberals and socialists. But there are, generally speaking, left and right wing liberals, and left and right wing socialists.

Most left liberals believe that individuals should be free to choose where they travel, work, or live. This is the founding principle enshrined in the European Union's freedom of movement, and is a common sentiment, rooted in the same promotion of individual liberty as those liberals on the right. But not all liberals are leftist; America's right wing is mostly classical liberals who believe in a small state and maximising individual liberty under a deontological (rules) rather than utilitarian (outcomes) principle.

Socialists also come in left and right wing varieties, broadly speaking. But the left typically believe that class is more important than culture in dividing and uniting individuals, in which case they share more in common with the foreign working class than the moneyed elite of their homeland. From that perspective, there's nothing wrong with the idea of immigrant workers, because they're united by the same struggle.

Consider the following part of an interview with Bob Crow, who was the general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport Workers Union, and thus a big deal when it came to the question of whether there would be a strike affecting London's underground. He was always, it should be noted, a committed Marxist socialist.

He is an internationalist who recently stood in the European elections on an anti-EU ticket as part of a trade union coalition. As far as he's concerned, the EU is a capitalist conspiracy to bring wage rates down. Does that mean at heart he is a little Englander? Christ no, he says. He doesn't care where his workers come from so long as they're being paid a fair rate. "People think we're wrapping ourselves up in the union jack, but I have got more in common with a Chinese labourer than I have with Sir Fred Goodwin. I'm anti-EU, but I'm pro-European. Real European support for me means when French dockers take action in Calais, we back it."

Does he agree with the Gordon Brown line, "British Jobs for British workers"? "No. And it didn't work did it? The vote collapsed. Labour's vote collapsed in the election, and it was all built up with scapegoat-ism. British jobs for British workers is just bullshit. Absolute bullshit."

Left liberals, and socialists in particular, are for a high minimum wage. The "fair rate" described above. In that case it doesn't matter if the individual works in high or low skilled work, they won't be in poverty.

In either case, according to left liberalism, or left socialism, immigration and sympathy for migrants is consistent with their beliefs in either personal liberty or class struggle. Just as right liberalism and right socialism both view freedom of movement as a threat to their liberty or job security.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 14:14

Empirical Measurement: Is there competition between migrants and local workers?

Distributional effects

Economic theory predicts that similar type of workers are competing with each other, but different type of workers can be complementary. A low-skilled/blue-collar worker needs a manager to be more productive, and a researcher needs a manufacturer that produces what he comes up with. Therefore, when looking at the impact of immigration on wages and employment, one has to be very careful whose wages and employment one is measuring.

Perhaps you will say "Yes, but some high-skilled workers such as doctors benefit from having nurses around, another type of job that also is "white collar". These two benefit from each other, so "high-skilled" is not always competition, is it? This is exactly the crux: It is often not sufficient to just group people into two education groups and look at the outcomes: A massive inflow of skilled nurses would hurt local nurses, but benefit other white collar jobs. If you look at average white collar wages, you might not find an effect, but if you trace out the group that is being replaced - nurses, you will see the effect.


In addition, one needs a random treatment of migrants. To see this, consider two US areas, Detroit and NYC. Given that the former is on a declining path, new migrants will rather go to NYC. Now, if you were to compare unemployment in both Detroit and NYC, you would find that the city with more migrants has lower unemployment! If on the other hand, you had two similar cities and could randomly distribute migrants to either one, you would have better chances at correctly measuring the causal impact.

Most studies that people cite when arguing that there is no competition have one or both of these drawbacks and are hence not suitable to find a causal effect of migration.

Borjas and Monras (2017) (see a comment at the end of this) try to deal with both of these issues and they find exactly the aforementioned distributional consequences. For these distributional reasons, you will expect that someone who caters to low-skilled workers will support high-skilled migration, and someone who caters to intellectual elites will support low-skilled migration.

The migration story outside of economic theory

So far, this was about what type of immigration you'd want to have, given what voters you want to cater to. Now, onward to migration. Some people believe that there should be free movement, but this is - in my opinion - outside the classical left/right dimensions.

However, consider Rawls' veil of ignorance: Before being born, you have to choose what kind of institutions you set up for a particular country, say the US. Before being born, you will not even know whether you will be born American or not. You will therefore favor US policies that are as fair/benefitial to all people, both American and not, as far as you can.

You can make this as a non egoistic argument as well: People on the left spectrum care about all people, local or foreigner. This speaks towards supporting migration.


Immigration theoretically has distributional consequences, and there is empirical evidence that supports this notion. The same is true with trade: We benefit from cheaper mobile phones, while factories get closed down. The same is true with technology: We are happy that radios were invented, but the piano industry disappeared over the span of perhaps 20 years.

Everyone might be better off from trade However, the people that gain from migration, benefit more, than the other lose out. In economic terms, there are potential "welfare gains" from migration: When blue collar workers come to the US, white collar wages increase so much that white collar workers could subsidize blue collar workers to the extend that they would not see a reduction of their wages. Or in other words: Everyone is better off.

However, you have to actually make these policies. You will need to identify which occupations are mostly hit from migration, and increase their benefits or pensions, or support them with retraining. Some people believe that rising their minimum wages would help too, but there is no supporting evidence for that claim and I will leave this for a separate discussion.

Unfortunately, while people agree that theoretically, everyone could be better off, most countries have missed enacting policies that ensure exactly this.

The referenced Borjas et al paper is not very convincing either, it has among other a very small sample size as it uses the census which is optimized for state and national level analysis to infer about wage changes in a particular city. But it is still at least as significant as the opposing studies (such as Card (1990) on the same event)

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    @KDog I don't understand that comment? Who is they, and in which regard?
    – FooBar
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 16:16

At the same time, many Left-wing politicians support increased immigration - both through the visa system and through asylum claims.

It is vital to separate these different sources, because it is not true that they are specifically linked to the left or right wing. Rather, they are linked to different reasons for accepting people into your country.

Visas are intended to limit economic migrants to those who are economically important to your country. Currently we think in terms of these being highly-skilled, high-value individuals, such as engineers or scientists. Historically however this has not always been the case. The USA has a large Chinese-ancestry population because Chinese labourers were encouraged to come to the country to work on construction of railroads. As its economy picked up in the 1950s, the UK encouraged encouraged immigration from the Commonwealth, in particular from India and the Caribbean, to build up a workforce which had been greatly reduced by the war. Germany encouraged immigration from Turkey in the 60s for the same reason.

There is significant economic debate about the effects of this, and also about the effects of uncontrolled migration/immigration. However these discussions tend to be focussed on the economic effects. The left and right wings will disagree over the economics, and this is a valid place to differentiate opinion by political position.

Asylum however has one specific purpose - to save the lives of people who otherwise risk being tortured or killed in their country of origin. Granting asylum to people in need is not on economic but on moral grounds, because failing to grant asylum to people when you aware of those consequences is morally equivalent to torturing or killing them yourself. In the US, the most infamous example is possibly the MS St Louis's "Voyage of the Damned".

Discussion of whether asylum claims should be limited are therefore not based on economic grounds but on moral and ethical grounds. The argument from people who do not support limits on asylum claims is that whether someone will compete with you economically should not be a reason to condemn them to death. Other people may say "you can't save everyone", but at that point they raise the question of how to place a value on a human life. This moral judgement clearly crosses the lines of left and right.

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    While this is generally a good answer, it is incorrect in that US Visa system has both skilled immigration as well as unskilled Green Card lottery (unlike Canada or Mexico).
    – user4012
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 17:02
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    Additionally, while the OP didn't state this explicitly, the context for the discussion is usually NOT skilled immigration which is small scale; but illegal immigration and/or mass refugee movement (for USA, mostly the former)
    – user4012
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 17:03
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    +1 for highlighting that asylum is not an economic choice. It becomes an economic factor though, especially for long drawn-out wars as have become the norm. Returning after three years is easy, returning after thirty years is hard, so the left is generally in favor of giving work permits to refugees so they don't waste their entire life sitting in temporary housing. Commented May 11, 2017 at 21:16
  • @user4012 Agreed on illegal immigration, but the phrasing of the question put this out of scope. I did briefly touch on this, but I didn't want to get sidetracked on something which didn't directly answer the question.
    – Graham
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 9:45

Politicians on the Left have made the calculation that low-skilled immigrants are more likely to vote Left than Right.

One glaring example was the push by Obama's DHS to naturalize as many people as they could in 2016 "due to election year"

The email, from a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office chief and part of a chain of correspondence within the agency, urges the unnamed recipient to swear in as many citizens as possible “due to the election year.”
“The Field Office due to the election year needs to process as many of their N-400 cases as possible between now and FY 2016,” reads the email, which was disclosed to FoxNews.com by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who chairs the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (source).

Another was Clinton's 2-16 campaign chairman John Podesta, who in a leaked email said (I will ignore the irrelevant side implication of giving impression that he was encouraging illegal voting):

“On the picture ID, the one thing I have thought of in that space is that if you show up on Election Day with a driver’s license with a picture, attest that you are a citizen, you have a right to vote in federal elections,” said Podesta. (source)

Obama wasn't the first Democrat to do that either:

Former House Judiciary Committee chief counsel David Schippers recounted how a “blatant politicization” of the then-INS took place during the 1996 presidential campaign, during which the White House pressured the agency into expediting citizenship to thousands of aliens whom the White House counted as likely Democratic voters.
“To ensure maximum impact,” Schippers reported, “the INS concentrated on aliens in key states — California, Florida, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, and Texas — that hold a combined 181 electoral votes, just 89 short of the total needed to win the election.” In all, he determined, “more than a million aliens would be naturalized in time to vote in the 1996 election.” (source)

Interestingly, Democrats are far less welcoming of refugees who aren't known for left wing leanings, as was the case with Vietnamese refugees:

In 1975 when Republican President Gerald Ford asked California to accept half a million Vietnamese refugees, then-Gov. Jerry Brown told him to drop dead. Brown’s argument was, “We can’t be looking 5,000 miles away and at the same time neglecting people who live here.” (source)

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    While this is not incorrect, it requires some evidence to back this up (of which there is plenty - including documented stuff like Obama fast-tracking citizenship before 2016 elections in USA).
    – user4012
    Commented May 12, 2017 at 13:19

What you say seems obvious is actually often untrue. More immigration /= lower wages all round. Not in the way most western democracies' economies are structured, anyway. So there is little to square.

I'll note that some answers here are referring to the American context, and are accusing left leaning politicians of being less than genuine, that the immigrants are to work for substandard wages. In some countries, eg Australia, they crack down on anyone doing this, and it's not nearly as common as it might be in the 'states. The issue is worker protections and enforcement, more than it is increased immigration, if that is what you're seeing.


The ideas you seem to attach to an optional, but strangely unexplored, "Left" wing strategy, follow (at least historically) the ideas of "National Socialism", whose children are the fascism (Mussolini) and with the extents of nation's genealogy/mythology Nazism (Hitler).

Left wing has (at least) a communist history, which indicates that immigrants are in the same position as all workers+ towards their common opponent in the class struggle, capitalists/m, as the coordinator/designer/supporter of the way in which capitalistic relations produce life, alienating the worker from the product of his labor and at last (marginally) from the creation of (her/his) life.

The relational* structure of a system that feels so real, can only make workers demand the impossible, in a sense that by demanding it they either at least improve/signify their existence, or further apart make capitalism insufficient to support their demands, when they at last are able to create a new world. (which may have nothing in common to do, with the demands as they are formed "now")

*: In the sense that its existence does not depend on anything absolute or true - e.g. as the result of a scientifically proven destiny.

Now if there is any point for the left wing to take part in the parliament is a big discussion (in which, I personally disagree) and in which (as much as in everything) you can express and practice your own opinion.

+: An example of that in practice can be observed on the fifteen dollar movement started by McDonald's workers (which are mainly immigrants) all around US, which was successful to succeed such a goal in many states, having managed beforehand, even a one-day global strike (for workers in the same field)!

  • The majority of McDonald's workers are not immigrants. Only about 1.8 million out of 7.7 million.
    – Brythan
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 17:58

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