Immigration

The Democrats' Immigration Problem(s)

Saying nice things about new Americans won't win them enough votes. And articulating a vision is much harder.

The face of immigration policy at the Democratic National Convention.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

We can argue about whether or not America has an immigration problem. But it seems pretty clear that Democrats have an immigration problem, one that they’re going to have to fix if they want to effectively oppose Trump, much less regain control of the government.

Josh Barro has laid out at length exactly what that problem is. Briefly: Democratic arguments about immigration mostly aren’t arguments. The party has relied on opposing Trump’s more outrageously exaggerated claims about the criminality and all-around character flaws of immigrants. That’s fine, as far as it goes -- but as November showed, it doesn’t go far enough.

The core problem is that Democrats didn’t really make an affirmative argument for an overhaul to U.S. immigration policy that might appeal to voters. Instead, they talked a lot about what great people immigrants are, and how much they benefit from migration. Unfortunately, the clearest group of beneficiaries from this policy -- people who want to migrate, but haven’t yet gotten a green card -- can’t vote.

Of course there are spillover benefits to immigration, but they are somewhat nebulous compared to the direct benefit to the would-be migrants. It’s easy to explain how immigrants benefit from an open door. Explanations of how the rest of us benefit tend to rely on the trivial or on abstract economic arguments that most people don’t find particularly intuitive or convincing. Those arguments look even more suspicious because they are generally made by the one group that visibly does benefit from a lot of low-skilled immigration, which provides the nannies, lawn-care, and food services that high-skilled professionals rely on to allow them to work longer hours.

There is one other group of people who strongly benefit, of course: recent migrants who have relatives they would like to join them. The most recent data indicate that that’s perhaps 6 percent of eligible voters. Oh, perhaps we should add some percentage for their native-born children who might care a great deal about getting their grandparents, aunts and uncles the boon of U.S. residence. But then we should probably subtract something, too, for the naturalized citizens who don’t care to have the entire extended family moving onto their doorstop. More importantly, we have to account for the fact that naturalized citizens vote at significantly lower rates than the native born.

Other people may favor immigration, but it’s not necessarily an issue they’re willing to vote on. In other words, Democrats may have large numbers of people polling vaguely in favor of high immigration levels, but relatively low levels of voter intensity for their position.

You can see how these gaps work when you consider what happened on gun control in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre: nothing. Strong majorities polled in favor of tighter restrictions. This support was broad but shallow: When it came to the ballot box, most people were more likely to vote on other issues. Gun owners, on the other hand, were apt to make this one of their top issues and vote accordingly.

Immigration may have a similar asymmetry. Distrust of strangers is a universal human phenomenon, tapping into some pretty deep evolutionary instincts. Once those instincts are aroused, you need very powerful emotional arguments as to why it’s worth taking the risk. “They’re really nice people” is not it. Nor is “It will be great for them” or “Look at this regression analysis.”

Democrats seem to appreciate that this is a problem. You saw this at the convention, where the hours before 6 p.m. -- when most people weren’t watching -- were heavy on praise for immigration and appearances by illegal immigrants who spoke movingly of their plight. But at the hour when the nation turned its eyes to the television, the paeans in favor of illegal migrants became dramatically more restrained.

Yet instead of solving this problem, Democrats opted to mostly speak in vague generalities and to avoid concrete questions: What percentage of our society should be foreign born? How should we choose the people we allow to migrate? Instead of formulating a clear policy, they relied on institutional inertia and lax enforcement to swell the foreign-born population to nearly 15 percent of the country. And Republicans, whose donor class likes generous immigration rules, were happy to go along.

That was fine as long as those groups were in charge of the status quo. Once Trump took over, however, that became infeasible. Trump, and anti-immigration Republicans in Congress, are going to be pushing specific policies to step up enforcement against people who are here illegally, and otherwise curtail legal immigration; a bill is already on the table that would sharply cut the number of people who can immigrate legally.

Successfully opposing these moves will require more than saying “He called Mexicans rapists!” Nor will it suffice to repeat how swell immigrants are. They are going to have to put forward a specific vision of their own for how many people should be allowed into this country, and what kind. And they will need to back up that vision with emotionally salient arguments that convince American voters immigration is as good for them as it is for the newcomers to our shore.

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

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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