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2016 Elections

Democrats Used to Worry About Immigration Too. What Happened?

The party's openness to illegal immigrants is relatively new. And it has some downsides.

While the partisan gap over immigration has been a defining feature of this campaign, its origins probably aren’t what you think. Yes, Donald Trump has stoked his core supporters in the Republican base into near-delirium with his talk of building a “great, great wall on our southern border.” But the immigration gap between the two parties owes much more to a less-remarked shift: Democrats today are far less concerned about legal and illegal immigration than they were two decades ago.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ most recent survey on public opinion and foreign policy shows just how polarized attitudes have become. Whereas two-thirds of Republicans see “large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States” as a “critical threat,” only a quarter of Democrats feel the same way.

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When the Chicago Council began asking that question in 1998, Democrats saw large-scale immigration no differently from Republicans. After 2002, that started to change, as the percentage of Democratic respondents expressing concern has steadily declined.

The same trend applies to views on illegal immigration, with Democrats showing markedly less concern over the last two decades. Separate Pew Research Center data show a similar evolution.


By comparison, Republicans’ views have fluctuated within a relatively narrow band. (Both parties grew more concerned with the 2014 border surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America; Trump’s ravings amplified that boost on the Republican side in 2015.) That pattern is largely consistent with the GOP’s anti-immigrant record, which put them on the restrictive side of most major immigration laws passed during the 20th century.

But what accounts for the shift by Democrats?

Part of the explanation is the party’s demographics. In 1992, 76 percent of all Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters were non-Hispanic whites; now that figure is just 57 percent. In contrast, Republican voters are still 86 percent white, down just slightly from 93 percent in 1992. Republicans have also become, on average, older and less educated -- two other characteristics that track with greater concern about immigration.

How have those changes translated to Democrats’ new comfort with immigrants? It could be that Democrats are less worried about illegal immigration -- and more likely to endorse a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already here -- because of ethnic identity politics: Even before Trump’s insults and threats drove Hispanics (who now make up 12 percent of registered Democrats) to the polls, numerous studies have shown that immigration has shaped their political views. It could also be that immigration’s salience as a wedge issue between Democrats and Republicans prompts Democrats of all backgrounds to be less concerned about immigration.

QuickTake Immigration Reform

Or maybe it’s because Democrats spend hours curled up with Pew Center reports and U.S. Border Patrol statistics and know that the population of illegal immigrants peaked in 2007, and that, measured by border apprehensions, the number of people trying to sneak across the border today is less than a third of what it was in the early 2000s.

But of course, there’s another reason: The Democratic Party recognizes that immigration advances its political fortunes. The change in the party’s make-up coincides with the dramatic increase in the proportion (and number) of foreign-born residents in the U.S. In 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, the foreign-born made up 13.1 percent of the population. That’s still below the all-time high of 14.7 percent in 1910, but it’s a pole vault from the all-time low of 4.7 percent in 1970, arguably the apogee of Archie Bunker’s White America. And the biggest shift in percentage terms occurred recently, between 1990 and 2010.

That two-decade period is also when the foreign-born population of the U.S. began to have a growing influence on voting outcomes. As the political scientist Tom Holbrook has noted, while “there was little-to-no relationship between the relative size of foreign born population and presidential outcomes in the states in the 1970s and 1980s,” that relationship has grown steadily since then, with Democrats making advances “in virtually all states with an above average level of foreign- born population.”

Recent studies of presidential elections suggest that naturalized Latino and Asian-American citizens vote Democratic by a two-to-one margin. And there’s a big pool waiting to be tapped: Almost 9 million of America’s 13 million legal permanent residents are eligible to become citizens. Even before this election, they were naturalizing at the fastest rate in three decades. And thanks in part to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, applications to become citizens in the second quarter of 2016 were 32 percent higher than the same period last year.

Democratic voters probably don’t sit around thinking that higher levels of immigration will lead to a commanding majority. But party leaders do, and devise their policies and messages accordingly. Look, for instance, at Hillary Clinton’s campaign literature on immigration. The emphasis is overwhelmingly on comprehensive immigration reform and naturalization, protecting and integrating those who are already here and creating a pathway for illegal immigrants to “full and equal citizenship.”  

Those goals are all essential. If Clinton wins, however, just as important will be deterring the resurgence of the illegal migrant population. That’s not an easy sell to Democrats, many of whom seem to have a hard time even saying “illegal immigrant.” Instead, their preferred euphemism is “undocumented” -- as if those here illegally had merely left their driver’s license or passport at home, rather than trampled on one of the fundamental aspects of sovereignty and citizenship.

But there are good reasons to be honest about the need to step up the fight against illegal immigration. For starters, the business of smuggling migrants into the U.S. is now much vaster and more sophisticated. Border apprehensions are down from the 2000s, but have ticked up since 2012.

Granted, I speak with the zeal of a former foreign-service officer who spent three years in Mumbai and Tokyo trying to uphold U.S. immigration laws. But when I read about someone who braved gangs and patrols to cross the border and provide for their family, I don’t see a triumph of the human spirit so much as a problem for all concerned. Illegal immigrants are forced to live a life in the shadows, more vulnerable to crime and exploitation. At the same time, the relative impunity with which they can enter and work in the U.S. is a slap in the faces of the more than 4 million law-abiding people waiting years outside the U.S. for their green cards. In the current system, they’re the only suckers playing by the rules.

Moreover, illegal immigration eats away at support for legal immigration. As the Chicago Council poll shows, no issue has animated Trump’s core supporters more than immigration. It’s easy to dismiss their fears about non-white newcomers as racist and xenophobic. But keep in mind that the country’s seismic demographic shift over the last several decades included a more than three-fold increase in the number of illegal immigrants, from 3.5 million in 1990 to 12.2 million in 2007. People could be forgiven for finding that upsetting. As Larissa MacFarquhar wrote recently about West Virginia in The New Yorker,

When Clinton talks about Trump voters, she tends to divide them into two categories: bigots (her “basket of deplorables”) and people suffering from economic hardship. What’s missing from Clinton’s two categories is a third sort of person, who doesn’t want to think of himself as racist, but who feels that strong borders describe a home.

Even if the apocalyptic visions of Trump’s wall-builders amount to a fever dream, high levels of immigration impose plenty of stresses. As Robert Putnam put it, “Immigration and ethnic diversity challenge social solidarity and inhibit social capital.” That’s not an argument for shutting the doors to legal immigration (something that Putnam doesn’t endorse), but it is a strong argument for doing all you can to stop illegal immigration.

The Democratic Party’s growing diversity and ability to attract newcomers’ votes are wellsprings of political strength. But its elders shouldn’t forget that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants not least because it’s a nation of laws. When the party downplays illegal immigration, it’s tacitly endorsing what many outside it see, in effect, as the crime of breaking and entering, and undermining the strength of the larger social contract. In the short run, that strategy may help to win newcomers’ votes, but it’s no way to run what will remain a deeply divided republic.

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

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