News & Politics

How the Latest Smear Campaign Against Bernie Sanders Collapsed Before It Started

The Vermont senator’s words were completely twisted. Here’s what he actually said.

This week, Bernie Sanders sat down with Vox.com for a lengthy interview on a variety of topics. One of the topics covered was the Vermont independent senator's views on immigration. Sanders' response to a question from Vox's Ezra Klein about whether the United States should have completely “open borders” has caused quite a bit of controversy. Here's the section in question:

KLEIN: You said being a democratic socialist means a more international view. I think if you take global poverty that seriously, it leads you to conclusions that in the US are considered out of political bounds. Things like sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders. About sharply increasing ....

SANDERS: Open borders? No, that's a Koch brothers proposal.

KLEIN: Really?

SANDERS: Of course. That's a right-wing proposal, which says essentially there is no United States. ...

KLEIN: But it would make ....

SANDERS: Excuse me ....

KLEIN: It would make a lot of global poor richer, wouldn't it?

SANDERS: It would make everybody in America poorer —you're doing away with the concept of a nation state, and I don't think there's any country in the world that believes in that. If you believe in a nation state or in a country called the United States or UK or Denmark or any other country, you have an obligation in my view to do everything we can to help poor people. What right-wing people in this country would love is an open-border policy. Bring in all kinds of people, work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them. I don't believe in that. I think we have to raise wages in this country, I think we have to do everything we can to create millions of jobs.

The first blogger to pick up on this section and use it to bash Sanders was Vox's on Dylan Matthews, a young writer with a history of engaging in poorly researched conjecture. He wrote a post attacking Sanders, tweeting it out under the curious line that the senator “doesn't actually care about inequality” even though Sanders has spent much of his life fighting inequality in every dimension.

But the actual post is even stranger.

Matthews calls Sanders' view “ugly” because it treats American “lives as more valuable than the lives of foreigners,” and says he's “wrong about what the effects of an open-border policy would be on American workers.” Matthews cites a “Libertarian” website that claims the world GDP would increase between 50 to 150 percent and then a bunch of other random statistics to try to make the case that completely unlimited immigration would be positive for the United States.

At one point, he even throws in the example of Russian migration to Israel giving Israelis as a whole a higher standard of living. (He ignores that the influx caused such large social problems in Israel that the country sought billions in loans to assist it and caused a housing crisis that exacerbated the growth of settlements in Palestinian territory.)

The underyling point made by Klein and Matthews is also very strange: that the solution to global inequalities is for the United States and other rich countries to simply eliminate their borders and let everyone in. This ignores the problems that actually create global economic inequality: dysfunctional governing systems, exploitative supply chains and poor distribution of capital.

People don't come to the United States because as soon as they land on its shores, they are granted riches. Historically, they come here for access to jobs. When the jobs don't exist, they don't come here. During the Great Recession, both documented and undocumented immigration fell sharply. One of the practical results of the North American Free Trade Agreement was the collapse of the Mexican agricultural industry, which was flooded with highly subsidized agribusiness from the United States. What actually happened was that migration to the United States from Mexico dramatically increased, as workers tried to find new jobs to the north.

By Matthews' logic, it was good that NAFTA wiped out a section of the Mexican middle class, so they could risk their lives crossing a desert to come to the United States to be exploited for substandard-wage jobs rather than achieve the middle-class lifestyles they had in their own communities.

A number of other outlets joined in the pile-on after Matthews' missive, including ThinkProgress. But what was most interesting was the confirmation of Sanders' thesis that the idea of open borders is an ultra-right-wing Koch brothers idea. After he made his remarks, a number of right-libertarians wrote pieces slamming Sanders, including Daniel Bier of the so-called Foundation for Economic Education.

What's being lost in all of the sniping at Sanders is his actual record on immigration. Sanders is a son of a Polish Jewish migrant, and has spoken in favor of comprehensive immigration reform and ending detention quotas for undocumented immigrants. He vocally supported President Obama's immigration executive order and has called for going even further, such as including the parents of dreamers, putting him to the left of President Obama. Sanders voted in favor of 2013's comprehensive immigration reform bill, the primary piece of legislation immigrant advocates support. In 2003, he had a zero percent rating from the main anti-immigrant advocacy group, FAIR.

Despite all of this, it appears Sanders is being slammed for admitting a core truth about immigration in America: today, the corporate elite are advocates for more immigration not because they care about the hard-working families who risk everything to come here but because they absolutely do want workers to exploit for lower wages. The challenge for progressives is to be able to conduct a fair and humane immigration policy that defends human rights while not simply doing the bidding of Corporate America.

"I don’t think there’s any presidential candidate, none, who thinks we should open up the borders,” explained Sanders at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce later this week.

That's a level of nuance that may be lost on bloggers who were quick to criticize Sanders, but it's one that working people in America and abroad understand. For Vox, however, nuance may not be the most profitable. Moiz Syed, who works at Wikimedia, pointed out on Twitter that Matthews' hit piece on Sanders popped up alongside a sponsorship from Walmart.

Zaid Jilani is an AlterNet staff writer. Follow @zaidjilani on Twitter.

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