In the early 1990s, the US embarked on a series of efforts to globalize its economy. The North American Free Trade Agreement — better-known as NAFTA — was signed in 1992, while hundreds of US companies set up outposts throughout Asia and Latin America — taking hundreds of thousands of jobs with them.
But with economic borders now wide open, a parallel movement emerged to liberalize immigration into America — and million of migrants arrived to the US, vast numbers of them illegal and impermanent.
In an excerpt from his new book, “Decades of Decadence: How Our Spoiled Elites Blew America’s Inheritance of Liberty, Security, and Prosperity,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) explains how these newcomers served as convenient sources of cheap labor — while upended long-standing patterns of assimilation and integration.
Across this country today, the immigration system has been corrupted and exploited. And it began, as many of America’s problems do, with the fundamental shift toward a globalized economy.
For decades now, since our elites began to believe that global market integration was an inherent good that should take precedence over all else — particularly patriotism, national unity, and the welfare of American workers — this country has prioritized the importation of cheap labor. The 1990s were dominated by stories of local factories shutting down in Pennsylvania and Ohio, only to reopen weeks later in Mexico or China. Offshoring American jobs made headlines and prompted outcry from politicians, but otherwise continued apace even as our communities were hollowed out.
But not every business could be exported, which meant Wall Street simply figured out how to import cheap labor, much of it coming from illegal immigrants. This was a slower, more subtle process. Sure, some politicians made a big deal about “jobs Americans wouldn’t do,” but otherwise the only outcry came from workers who found their wages stalled, benefits cut, and hours slashed until they could be replaced by someone willing to work more hours for less.
More often than not, it is about jobs Wall Street doesn’t want Americans to do because hiring Americans would require higher wages and better working conditions. To them, it is better to import cheap labor and buy off Americans with cash welfare programs provided by the government.
What’s more, many sought to rationalize the entire process in glowing, nonexploitative terms. They were convinced that the end of history made us all “citizens of the world.” Why should jobs in America be reserved for Americans if borders don’t matter? In a global economy, the source of the labor doesn’t matter, so long as the job gets done. That policy consensus accelerated the erosion of national identity and patriotism.
By the end of 2001, shortly after the United States had helped China become a member of the WTO, elites from both parties were willing to support the idea that our borders should effectively be thrown open. In the wake of agreements like NAFTA, the world was now “flat,” as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times would put it, and the conventional wisdom was that our government should act accordingly. In those days, anything that was good for the free market was perceived as being good for the United States, too. No one in our government seemed to spend much time considering the possible complications that would come from making policy this way.
One of the most surprising conversations to emerge from free trade globalism came from America’s organized labor movement. Sure, they continued to advocate “Buy American” protections and tariffs, but they increasingly embraced unchecked immigration. “In a significant policy shift,” the Washington Post wrote in 2000, “organized labor today called for amnesty for an estimated 6 million illegal immigrants and repealing current law that imposes sanctions on employers that hire them.”
The business community was thrilled. “It’s a welcome embrace of amnesty from an employer’s perspective,” the US Chamber of Commerce said at the time. And why wouldn’t it be? If near-slave-labor wages could be paid in the United States, they didn’t really need the hassle of moving production to China or Mexico. Of course, that happened anyway. Just as organized labor prepared to see jobs shipped overseas, it welcomed a flood of illegal immigrants. It was truly stunning. No one was fighting for the American worker.
By the time Barack Obama began his campaign for president, amnesty for illegal immigrants and open borders were the de facto positions of the Democrat Party. American workers were right to wonder who was fighting for them.
In the years since, Democrats’ embrace of cheap imported labor continued, but something equally corrosive began to emerge. Consider, for instance, the reception that Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois received when he declared, rather memorably, that he had “only one loyalty, and that’s to the immigrant community.” This came in the midst of his fight with President Obama over immigration in 2010. By then, the problem of illegal immigration was growing worse by the day, and Rep. Gutierrez had become the leading voice on the issue in Congress.
When President Obama first took office in 2009, he had promised Gutierrez that he would work to pass the DREAM Act. But in the two years since, Gutierrez had come to believe that President Obama was dragging his feet on the issue, so he went on the attack. He accused the president of focusing too much on apprehensions and deportations at the border, and not enough on granting citizenship to people who were already here.
As a member of Congress, Gutierrez swore an oath to “bear true faith and allegiance” to the Constitution and the United States. But his declaration of loyalty to those who broke our nation’s laws was hailed by the liberal media. During the most heated fighting over immigration, Newsweek published an article calling him “as close as the Latino community has to a Martin Luther King figure.”
At the time, I was living in Miami-Dade County, an incredibly diverse place. I was speaking with members of the “immigrant community” that Gutierrez claims to represent every day, the vast majority of whom came here legally and followed the rules. Repeatedly, I heard complaints from these people about the swaths of illegal immigrants who were marching toward our southern border and expecting automatic citizenship. Yet whenever anyone in Congress raised those same objections, they were referred to—usually by Gutierrez and people like him — as racist, xenophobic, or intolerant.
In truth, there are two immigrant communities in America. The one that gets the most attention in our national debate is the group that wants to ignore our laws and change our traditions. This is why so much of our attention is spent on granting amnesty to those illegally here. Activists like Gutierrez and the legacy media tend to ignore or dismiss the other group, which very much resembles past immigrant communities — people who fled oppression, came legally to America looking for opportunity, and want to be American.
We need to stop accepting the idea that the first group is the dominant group. That group would radically change America, not just the Democratic Party.
For this new class of illegal immigrants, the United States was simply a means to an end. It was not something they were part of. Even though many of them were hardworking people, America was just a place they could live for a while and earn money to send home to their families who were struggling back home. From a human standpoint, this impulse is fully understandable.
But in most cases, these weren’t people who felt that they were tied to America in the long term. They weren’t stakeholders in the well-being of this country. Their ability to be successful wasn’t tied to their embrace of America, our communities, or our traditions.
As a result, many immigrant communities became more insulated, and ethnonationalism among them became more pronounced. It has become possible, for instance, to drive down an American street and see the flags of a dozen different countries, not a single one of which was the United States. It became common for children to grow up without speaking English, or to go through school without learning the history of the country to which they had immigrated.
While some commentators have suggested that assimilation has become more difficult in the past 30 years, that is not the case. I’m from one of the most diverse cities in the United States, and I see assimilation all the time — every time I walk into a Cuban restaurant and see the dishes of my childhood served with a Colombian side, or fried yucca served at an American pub. You see it at a high school football game — a uniquely American sport embraced by everyone.
But I’ve also seen people who seem dedicated to stopping assimilation in its tracks, particularly in Washington, DC. Usually, these are people from the left-wing activist class whose political careers depend on keeping immigrant communities angry, isolated, and resentful.
The dumb word “Latinx” is a great example. The first time I heard it, I thought it was patronizing and absurd. I don’t know a single person outside of Washington, DC, who uses it. Too often, journalists and pollsters make the mistake of assuming that these people represent the views of all immigrant communities.
From the book “Decades of DecadenceHow Our Spoiled Elites Blew America’s Inheritance of Liberty, Security, and Prosperity” by Marco Rubio. Copyright © 2023 by Marco Rubio. Reprinted by permission of Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.