Marco Rubio’s awkward lunge for a water bottle on live television during his response to President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address is still garnering laughs, but the junior Senator from Florida can be forgiven for losing the battle with thirst during the biggest moment of his political career. What is not excusable is his historical illiteracy. This is a man who said that his immigration bill contained “enforcement measures that were the toughest… potentially in the history of the world.” This past week, Rubio again demonstrated that his interpretation of history has no connection to how things actually happened in the past.
Wired reported that “Speaking before a group of [tech]entrepreneurs, Rubio likened this moment in time to the Industrial Revolution.” His reasoning for making the comparison is that the United States is again facing “new questions on regulations and worker rights thanks to a wave of innovation.” Rubio was referring to, among other things, not letting the government prevent tech companies from bringing in cheaper foreign guest workers to displace capable American workers. He didn’t make it clear how this spurs innovation, since American tech workers routinely have to train their foreign replacements before being laid-off. Rubio’s disdain for the welfare of American workers is well-documented, so let’s concentrate here on how patently absurd is his historical comparison.
First, the Industrial Revolution began around 1820, at a time of very low immigration (The U.S. government began to count immigrants in 1820, who numbered 8,385 that year.) During the first phase of industrialization, which took place mainly in the northeastern states preceding the Civil War, immigration levels remained low, eight times lower, in fact than today’s level – and this includes the years following the Irish Potato Famine, when almost a quarter million Irish a year emigrated, many to the United States.
Immigration did increase after the Civil War, as industrialization spread to the Mid-West and increasingly into southern urban areas, a period commonly referred to by historians as the Second Industrial Revolution. What Rubio is actually referring to when he talks about the past “questions on regulations and worker rights” is the Progressive Era, which came about 70 years after the onset of the Industrial Revolution, in response to the terrible dangers and abuses many immigrant workers faced in lieu of workplace regulations. So, according to Rubio’s logic, it will be acceptable to take into consideration the welfare of American workers sometime around the turn of the next century.
Second, during the Industrial Revolution, there was a need for a large number of low-skilled workers. Precisely the opposite of what our economy now demands. This distinction is obviously lost on Rubio, whose prescription for immigration reform is to massively increase the flow of immigrants with low levels of education and skills. Even his rhetorical call for a corresponding increase in the number of “high-skill” guest worker programs amounts in reality to employers having greater access to foreign workers who are wiling to work more cheaply than their native counterparts who are just as talented, or, in many cases, more so.
Worst of all, Rubio is oblivious to the fact that immigration from Europe to the United States during the 19th century allowed white factory owners to not hire black Americans who could have taken those jobs, and would, in the absence of mass immigration, have had real bargaining power in the labor market. Mass immigration today continues to disproportionately affect the employment prospects of blacks (Hispanics, too). It would be interesting to hear Rubio explain what, if any, correlation there is between mass immigration and the fact that black unemployment is 57 percent higher than the national average. It may impress some that Rubio knows who Tupac Shakur and Little Wayne are, but he may be better served if he read up on Fredrick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.
ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA
Updated: Fri, Feb 19th 2016 @ 10:25am EST