Immigration Didn’t Have to Tear America Apart

It was only a dozen years ago that business advocates of more open borders found a warm welcome in the Republican Party. What happened?

European immigrants at Ellis Island.

Photographer: Bettmann/Getty Images

The standoff over immigration in the U.S. Congress that shut the government for three days looks strange to a world that sees the U.S. as a nation of immigrants fighting over immigration. “America was a model for immigration, but that image has collapsed,” says Hidenori Sakanaka, head of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, which promotes more newcomers to insular Japan.

Americans with a sense of history find it odd, too. That’s because the deep partisan split over immigration is actually quite new. Anti-immigration sentiment has waxed and waned over the centuries, to be sure. But as recently as 2006, Democratic and Republican voters were only 5 percentage points apart in their favorability toward immigrants, according to Pew Research Center. Back then—just a dozen years ago—­business advocates of more open borders found a warmer welcome in the Republican Party. And on the Democratic side, a first-term senator named Barack Obama could write, “When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment.”

Bipartisan consensus on immigration feels like ancient history. Today, congressional Republicans spurn the pro-immigration messages of powerful business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable. While Democrats have gone all-in on liberalized immigration, seeing themselves as a party of inclusion, Republicans increasingly see themselves as defending what it means to be an American.

By last July, Pew found that 84 percent of Democrats and those leaning toward the Democratic Party preferred the position that “immigrants today strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents.” Only 42 percent of Republicans and leaners tilted that way. Understanding why the parties diverged so abruptly is the first step toward developing—or rather, redeveloping—a national consensus on immigration that could produce sensible policies and help avert episodes of political brinkmanship.

The idea of granting green cards to people brought to the U.S. as children was first introduced as a Senate bill in 2001 by Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or Dream Act, didn’t come up for a vote until 2007, when it got the support of 12 Republicans. When it came up again in 2010, it got only two Republican votes. As the bill got less popular with one party, it got more popular with the other. The number of Democrats voting against the act fell from eight in 2007 to five in 2010.

By this year the partisan gap was wide enough to shut down the government. Immigration activists put election-year pressure on Democrats to use the budget as leverage to secure protections for the 690,000 undocumented “Dreamers” registered under Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The chances of that working were never good. Many Republicans consider DACA an illegal usurpation by Obama, and Donald Trump in September ordered the program to be shut down in March while challenging Congress to produce a legislative fix.

Trump has since exasperated both parties by waffling. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, complained that striking a deal with the president was “like negotiating with Jell-O.” In the end, though, Schumer accepted a deal to fund the government through Feb. 8 in return for a commitment by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican, to address Democratic demands for restoring protection to the Dreamers. That’s hardly the end of it. On Jan. 23, Schumer said his offer to Trump on funding for a wall on the Mexican border was now off the table. And any bill that manages to pass the Senate could still die in the House.

The stalemate dismays longtime participants in the immigration debate. One is Demetrios Papademetriou, who moved from Greece to the U.S. for college, gaining citizenship in 1976 and teaching international relations at the University of Maryland at College Park and other schools. He co-founded a pair of Migration Policy Institutes, one in Washington and one in Brussels. Both help governments develop immigration policies. Papademetriou says Congress has lost its ability to negotiate on the topic. “There was a time when congressional hearings were really honest opportunities to try to figure out what to do,” he says. “Now most of them are essentially an opportunity for the majority party to have its message broadcast.” While Europeans seek pragmatic repairs to their immigration systems, he says, in the U.S., “we think we know everything we need to know because we reduce the issue to a political agenda.”

To Papademetriou, 2000 was a turning point for immigration politics in the U.S. Labor unions had traditionally feared new arrivals would push down wages of native workers. But unions began to realize that keeping them undocumented made matters worse because they worked for a pittance. In February 2000 the AFL-CIO Executive Council called for amnesty and “full workplace rights” for undocumented workers while advocating criminal penalties for employers that “exploit” undocumented workers.

A year later the Sept. 11 terror attacks caused a segment of the population to view immigrants as a threat to their lives, not just their livelihoods. President George W. Bush and President Obama sought to calm those sentiments. President Trump has inflamed them. Concerns about jobs and terror fed into the decades-long realignment of the parties. Democrats noticed the Hispanic population was growing rapidly and calculated that they’d be rewarded for embracing pro-immigration policies. Meanwhile, the white working class took its misgivings about immigration with it as it decamped from the Democratic Party to the GOP. Before the 2016 election, Stanford University political scientist Adam Bonica found that the best predictor of support for Trump was agreement with the statement: “People living in the U.S. should follow American customs and traditions.”

Views have hardened as voters who never gave immigration much thought have taken their cue from party leaders, says Nathan Kalmoe, a political scientist at Louisiana State University and co-­author of Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public. “The people most likely to be swayed one way or the other are the people who tend to pay less attention to politics,” he says.

Ending the stalemate will require both parties to change. Democrats can’t blow off Republicans’ demands for enforcement of the law, as they’ve done in the sanctuary cities movement, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors curbs on immigration.

Democrats would also do well to acknowledge research indicating that low-skilled natives’ wages fall when a flood of low-skilled immigrants compete for their jobs. Employers often end up having to raise pay when the government cuts back on visas—as it did last summer with the H-2B program for seasonal guest workers. Even some undocumented workers see it that way. If undocumented immigrants were sent home, “they’d have to raise wages for native-born Americans,” says Pedro Romero, a 38-year-old undocumented worker who arrived from Mexico 18 years ago and cuts and lays custom marble in Houston. “And see even then if they want to work outside in the sun when it’s hot.” Support for immigration would also be higher if the government spent some of the tax revenue from the newcomers on aid to displaced workers and—this is crucial—assimilating new immigrants.

Republicans, for their part, need to separate themselves from the race-based rhetoric that some elements of the party have embraced. That’s tough considering that some of the basest language is now coming from the president.

The rest of the world is watching. “Your current president is very prominent in German media. It’s really astonishing,” says Matthias Mayer, project manager for Bertelsmann Stiftung, the foundation that’s majority owner of publisher Bertelsmann SE. Germany has gone to great lengths to exorcise its Nazi past. Says Mayer: “That someone would ban persons from specific countries, that is something that would be a right-wing fringe position in Germany.” Getting this issue right is essential for global businesses that employ diverse workforces. America has found a path forward on immigration in the past. It can do so again. —With Isabel Reynolds and Thomas Black

    BOTTOM LINE - Democrats and Republicans have moved further apart in their views on immigration over the years, leading to intractable differences over one of the core tenets of America.
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