The Real Reason Republicans Should Fear Immigration

Josh Barro is the lead writer for the Ticker, Bloomberg View's blog on economics, finance and politics. His primary areas of interest include tax and fiscal policy, state and local government, and planning and land use.
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The fight over immigration reform has led to some strategic handwringing among Republicans:  If we let more immigrants in, and most of them are Hispanics, how will they tend to vote? Some conservatives are worried that Hispanics will be disproportionately dependent on government and therefore likely to vote for Democrats. But others argue that Hispanics are "natural conservatives" who can be drawn to a conservative economic agenda.

There are a few problems with this line of inquiry. One is that it's shallow: Should decisions about who ought to be allowed to immigrate be driven by likely voting behavior? Another is that it sort of inevitably ends up in racist places, as with Rush Limbaugh arguing that the real problem with immigration is that Mexicans, unlike Cubans, are lazy.

But conservatives are also making a third error: Assuming that immigrants' lack of interest in conservative policies is driven by low incomes and dependency on government benefits. In this vein, National Review frets about Hispanics:

"While many are in business for themselves, they express hostile attitudes toward free enterprise in polls. They are disproportionately low-income and disproportionately likely to receive some form of government support. More than half of Hispanic births are out of wedlock. Take away the Spanish surname and Latino voters look a great deal like many other Democratic constituencies. Low-income households headed by single mothers and dependent upon some form of welfare are not looking for an excuse to join forces with Paul Ryan and Pat Toomey."

In other words: Hispanic immigrants will tend to be "takers" with self- interested reasons to support bigger government. But let's imagine that Hispanic Americans' demographic positioning looked different. Let's say they were disproportionately unlikely to have children out of wedlock, and had higher incomes and educational achievement than whites.

By National Review's logic, this should make them a natural conservative constituency, ready to line up with Paul Ryan and Pat Toomey. But Asian Americans -- who do have these characteristics in the aggregate -- vote Democratic in roughly similar numbers to Hispanics. This should be a clue that Republicans' failure with non-whites is not just about voters' economic circumstances.

Adam Serwer offers this theory for conservatives' failure to anticipate that minority groups could turn out to be diligent, wealthy and Democratic:

"Some conservatives have persuaded themselves that being a conservative is a prerequisite for human virtues like diligence. Since only conservatives know what hard work is, if you are not conservative you do not work hard."

I think Serwer actually has this backwards: Conservatives assume that diligence makes you conservative, not that conservatism makes you diligent. If you work hard and have a good income, obviously you will come to view the government as a parasite sucking away your lifeblood and vote Republican.

That's not working for conservatives with Asians, nor is it working with wealthier blacks and Hispanics. Partly that's because conservatives often demonstrate hostility toward non-whites (for example by trying to identify lazy demographic groups and exclude them from the U.S.). But even if you fixed conservatives' explicit problems with race, you'd still be left with an implicit one: "I Built It" conservatism is built on a gut-level resentment of government that occurs almost entirely among whites. Not every economically successful person hates the government, and successful minorities are less likely to hate the government than successful whites.

Limbaugh got at this earlier this week when he complained that "75 percent of voting Hispanics believe that prosperity is the job of government." I think he's referring to this National Journal survey from 2011, in which only 25 percent of Hispanics agreed with the statement "Government is not the solution to our economic problems; government is the problem." (42 percent of whites liked this answer.)

What appallingly socialist answers did Hispanics prefer? Thirty-four percent chose "Government should play an active role in the economy to ensure it benefits people like me, but I am not sure that I can trust government to do this effectively." A further 37 percent went with "Government must play an active role in regulating the marketplace and ensuring that the economy benefits people like me." This kind of neo-Bolshevism was even more popular with blacks and Asians than with Hispanics.

It's true that more immigration will make the U.S. less white, and that non- whites seem more likely than whites to believe that the government should work to ensure that the benefits of economic prosperity accrue to the population as a whole. But instead of trying to slow the decline of America's white majority, conservatives should respond by coming up with a policy agenda that actually does promote broad economic prosperity.

(Josh Barro is lead writer for the Ticker. Email him and follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.