Amnesty? Not So Fast
Republicans must avoid another self-inflicted demographic wound.


John O’Sullivan

As seemingly happens after every Republican defeat, the usual suspects in the GOP and their counterparts in the community of Republican “consultants” emerged to lament that the GOP lost mainly because it was beaten soundly among Latino voters. That defeat, they argue, can be traced to the GOP’s long opposition to a “comprehensive immigration reform” that would both grant an amnesty to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and liberalize immigration rules more generally by such measures as giving a green card to any post-graduate in science or engineering. 

Unless the GOP embraces such reforms in the near future, they argue, the party is doomed to lose still more heavily in future elections as more Latino and Asian voters enter the electorate and as white voters shrink as a proportion of its total. A new Republican organization, representing this point of view — which is also the view of big business, many GOP donors, and the extended Bush family — is to be established. Indeed, Jeb Bush will publish a book next April arguing the case as best he can. Since Mr. Bush recently held a reception for veterans of earlier Bush campaigns, his book sounds like an early campaign manifesto for a new open-borders GOP led by himself.


It’s hard to know where to start in commenting on this farrago. Crafting a sensible immigration policy that would benefit both native-born Americans and new arrivals, with U.S. citizens enjoying some priority concern over others, should surely be the right starting point. If we are to judge by that criterion, giving green cards to foreign Ph.Ds at a time of very high graduate unemployment will strike us as questionable rather than obvious. Ditto to facilitating the entry of extended family members with early access to welfare rights at a time of over-extended social and entitlement spending and endemic fiscal crises. One could add many such examples. 

In practice, though, they are irrelevant: good public policy is taking a back seat in these discussions to crafting an immigration policy that will help the GOP to win elections. (Interestingly, establishment-media commentators seem happy with this preference as well as biased in favor of the comprehensive reforms advanced by the GOP “moderates.” One might almost imagine they want the GOP to win the next election.) If this debate is to come down to the political impact of immigration, however, the best place to start is with the electoral arithmetic.

No one has the slightest excuse for being surprised either by the demographic changes in the U.S. electorate or by their likely political consequences. Ever since it became clear in the early 1990s that the 1986 immigration amnesty had legalized many more illegal immigrants than its drafters had predicted and that it was acting as an incentive to more illegal immigration rather than stemming its flow, anyone could see that immigration policy, unless it was sharply corrected, was likely to produce a long, steady, and substantial shift of net votes to the Democrats. National Review began devoting a lot of ink to the general topic of immigration around the time of the 1992 election. But it was just after the 1996 presidential contest that we focused in particular on its electoral consequences. Following that election I wrote an article examining how previous elections would have turned out if the ethnic make-up of the American people had been that projected for 2050 by the Census Bureau (in its Middle Series):

Current demographic projections forecast that the ethnic makeup of the U.S. in 2050 will be as follows: non-Hispanic whites, 53 per cent; blacks, 15 per cent; Hispanics, 21 per cent; and Asians, 10 per cent. If that had been America’s ethnic shape in this [1996] election (and if ethnic groups had voted as they actually did), Clinton would have won 56 per cent of the popular vote instead of less than half. Indeed, applying those same criteria to the last seven presidential elections . . . Democrats would have won every election except 1972 — and even then George McGovern would have got a respectable 47 per cent of the vote instead of his derisory 36 per cent.

For masochists in the audience, the hypothetical Democratic share of the vote would have been 59 per cent in 1976, 49 per cent in the three-way race of 1980, 52 per cent in Reagan’s landslide year of 1984, 53 per cent in 1988 (Hail to the Chief Dukakis!), and just shy of a popular majority in three-way 1992, when Perot would have taken 16 per cent. It goes almost without saying that there would have been no Republican Congress throughout this period — as, indeed, there mostly wasn’t.

So enjoy the Republican majority while it lasts — oh, say, another 15 years. Max.

I was over-optimistic. The GOP’s statistical run of luck ran out three years earlier in 2008. Nonetheless, I claim this piece as the first sighting of the GOP’s looming demographic doom.