Timing is everything.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Republicans Go Against the Flow on Immigration

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Anti-immigrant sentiment is roiling the Republican presidential primary, with most candidates taking aggressive stands against illegal immigration and Donald Trump now raising the ante with a plan for stark limits on legal entry, as well. Aside from the strains this likely puts on Republican efforts to court Hispanic and Asian voters, the fusillade seems curiously ill-timed.

Talk of mass deportation, restrictions and a big, big wall would have found a large, enthusiastic audience at many points in American history. From Benjamin Franklin's grumbling about newcomers threatening to "Germanize us" to fear of "Asiatic inundation," hostility toward immigration is a recurring feature of American life. As recently as the 1990s, according to tracking by Gallup, two-thirds of Americans supported a decrease in immigration.

And now? Not so much. In 2009, during the deepest throes of the Great Recession, Americans were no less supportive of immigration at current or increased levels than they were when Congress liberalized immigration law in 1965 or when it provided amnesty to illegal immigrants in 1986.

Since 2009, support for immigration has grown. Gallup tracking shows that during June and July of this year 65 percent of Americans supported immigration either at present levels or higher. Only 34 percent wanted immigration decreased. 

Why are more Americans inclined to welcome immigrants? Demographics have changed dramatically, altering the complexion of the nation. But that's happened before, too, with newcomers of various hues soon proving eager to close the door behind them.

In an e-mail, Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, cited "economic conditions and recent immigrant flows" as the two key factors influencing public opinion on immigration. It's conventional wisdom that a bustling economy mitigates resistance to newcomers. But "recent immigrant flows" could be more significant. If immigration has been surging in preceding years, resistance seems to rise. Looking at the Gallup graph above, Rosenblum wrote:

The long upward trend in the “decrease” line between the mid-60s and the early 90s corresponds with the third big wave of immigration to the U.S.: increased flows of Hispanic and Asian immigrants. It was especially acute during the early 90s as immigrants moved for the first time to new locations in the Southeast, Midwest, and Great Plains. On top of the usual anxiety about new immigrants, the most recent wave is the first that has been mostly unauthorized.

Illegal immigration has been the main focus of immigration opponents in recent years. With illegal border crossings in decline since before Barack Obama's inauguration, however, Americans generally may be feeling more tolerant. David Martin, a professor of international law at the University of Virginia School of Law and a former principal deputy general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration, also theorizes that "opposition is stoked by the flow of migration, not stock." In an e-mail, he wrote, "Net flow of unauthorized immigration has been low for several years (near zero in many), and most citizens have come to terms with long-resident foreign neighbors."

Parsing beliefs about immigration isn't always easy, in part because reality and belief can go separate ways. According to CNN/ORC poll taken in July, 69 percent of Americans believe the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. illegally has increased "in the last few years," though most data and experts suggest the opposite is true.

Whatever they perceive about the flow of immigrants, the majority of Americans are not expressing great hostility toward them. Since 2006 Gallup has asked whether Americans want to deport all illegal immigrants, let them remain temporarily in the U.S. to work or give them a path to citizenship. Deportation has never exceeded 24 percent. Path to citizenship? It was 65 percent this summer.

Thus, the summer of 2015 seems an awkward moment for Republicans to be catering to the nativist anxiety of their Tea Party. Sentiment can shift, of course. Martin cautions that if the "flow" theory is correct, "the current attitude is vulnerable to quick change if flows resume. I think President Obama sensed that when he took such stern measures in response to last year’s surge in migration of children and families from Central America." 

At the time, Republicans demanded that Obama do far more to turn back the kids at the border. Maybe their presidential candidates would be better off today if he had done far less.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net