Federal immigration policy has allowed about 30 million legal immigrants to settle permanently in the United States since 1980. This has affected all areas of American life, not the least being electoral politics.
Progressives openly debate the immigration issue in political terms. Labor-union official Eliseo Medina, for instance, has promoted amnesty and increased immigration as a means to “expand and solidify the progressive coalition for the future” in order to “create a governing coalition for the long term, not just for an election cycle.”
Is Medina right?
A new report published by my organization, the Center for Immigration Studies, suggests he is. The study, by University of Maryland political scientist James Gimpel, shows how mass legal immigration is remaking the electorate in favor of Democrats. Gimpel examines the results of every presidential election from 1980 to 2012 and finds that, in the nation’s 100 largest counties, each one percentage-point increase in the immigrant share of the population on average reduced the Republican share of the vote by nearly 0.6 percentage points. When all the nation’s counties are included, the decline was a somewhat less, but it was still about 0.45 percentage points.
This is an enormous impact when one considers that the immigrant share of the U.S. population more than doubled from 1980 (6.2 percent) to 2012 (13 percent). Gimpel’s results imply that immigration may have reduced the Republican’s share of the presidential vote nationally by 3 or 4 percentage points. Remember, Obama won in 2012 with 51 percent of the popular vote to Romney’s 47 percent.
Think of it this way: Obama won in 2012 by 5 million votes. But legal immigration will add 15 million new potential citizens over the next two decades — and that’s just from today’s level of 1 million–plus total immigrants per year, without even counting the amnesty and immigration increases in the Schumer-Rubio bill passed by the Senate. (The 15 million figure takes into account residency requirements, age, and return migration.) As a recent Eagle Forum report concluded, “If immigration is not reduced, it will be virtually impossible for Republicans to remain nationally competitive as a conservative party.” The title of the Eagle Forum report sums up the problem: “How Mass (Legal) Immigration Dooms a Conservative Republican Party”.
A second key finding of Gimpel’s report is that “the partisan impact of immigration is relatively uniform throughout the country — from California to Texas to Florida — even though local Republican parties have taken different positions on illegal immigration.” Thus the demise of Republican political prospects “does not seem to vary with the local Republican Party’s position on illegal immigration.” That immigrants give overwhelming support to Democrats regardless of local Republicans’ approach to immigration is a fact supported by past history as well as other research.
For instance, two years after Reagan signed an amnesty in 1986, George Bush senior received only 30 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 1988 landslide victory — a seven-point decline from Reagan’s 1984 share. A recent study by University of Alabama professor George Hawley found that, in the 2006 midterm elections, pro-amnesty Republicans did no better with Hispanics than pro-enforcement Republicans. (The issue had a high profile that year because the House’s 2006 enforcement bill led to mass protests in immigrant communities.) The reason immigration makes little difference in voting is that it’s not a top priority for Asians and Hispanics. Both Pew and Gallup found that immigration ranked low in priority among Hispanics, particularly among registered voters, prior to the 2012 election. Asians also rank immigration as a low priority.
Immigrants and their U.S.-born children strongly support Democrats for the simple reason that they largely agree with them on the issues. Immigrants, particularly Hispanics and Asians (who together constitute about three-fourths of all immigrants), have, as Gimpel writes, “policy preferences when it comes to the size and scope of government that are more closely aligned with progressives than with conservatives.” The aforementioned Eagle Forum report provides an extensive overview of the many, many surveys showing Asian and Hispanic support for big-government policies.
Pew has found that 55 percent of Hispanics have a negative view of capitalism, the highest of any group surveyed — higher even than self-identified supporters of Occupy Wall Street (47 percent). Let me repeat: Occupy Wall Street supporters like capitalism more than Hispanics do.
Pew also found that 75 percent of Hispanics prefer “a bigger government providing more services” while only 19 percent want “a smaller government providing fewer services.” Among Asians the share wanting a bigger versus a smaller government was 55 versus 36 percent. In contrast, Pew found that only 41 percent of the general public wanted a bigger government.
Support for Obamacare may have dropped among Hispanics, but they have been among the law’s strongest supporters. Even after its disastrous rollout, Hispanics are still evenly divided on the law, and support for it is 14 percentage points higher among them than among non-Hispanic whites. Support for the law among Asians has also been strong.
Whether the issue is gun control, Obamacare, affirmative action, environmental regulation, or the general size of government, significant majorities of immigrants and their children favor liberal policies. Given that, it should surprise no one that in 2012, 71 percent of Hispanics and 73 percent of Asians voted for President Obama. This should not be seen as a moral defect on their part. As the Eagle Forum report makes clear, “the fact that a strong majority of voters in immigrant communities hold liberal views should not be seen as a flaw in their character. Their liberal views, while well to the left of the average American voter, are still within the mainstream of American politics.”
But some Republicans fantasize that, if only the contentious issue of immigration were “solved,” many more immigrants and their children would vote Republican. After all, the thinking goes, immigrants and their adult children are entrepreneurial, hardworking, and religious. In truth, immigrants are no more likely to own a business than natives, and the share holding a job is about the same as natives. More important, the idea that immigrants are conservative Republicans who just don’t know it yet is entirely divorced from the survey results about their policy preferences.
There’s really no debate among those who’ve actually studied the issue. Professors R. Michael Alvarez (MIT) and Lisa Garcia Bedolla (Berkeley), for instance, argue that Latino support for Democrats “is based on policy issue preferences” and this is not going to change “unless the parties fundamentally change their issue positions.” Gary Segura (Stanford) and Shaun Bowler (UC riverside) point out that “minority voters and white voters have markedly different expectations regarding the vigor and reach of government.”
Journalists have made the same point. After looking at a number of surveys, Mark Mellman of The Hill pointed out that Asian Americans are “quintessentially liberal.” David Leonhardt, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times, also writes that “the two fastest-growing ethnic groups — Latinos and Asian Americans — are decidedly liberal.”
None of this means Republicans shouldn’t try to do a better job at outreach in immigrant communities. Unfortunately, the consultant class that’s been in charge of this for years, and is relentless in demanding capitulation to the Democrat/Chamber of Commerce immigration program, is part of the problem. Instead of repeating the same unsuccessful tactics and expecting a different result, I’ve suggested, Republicans should establish a sustained presence in immigrant communities through American Opportunity Centers, where grassroots Republican volunteers could teach citizenship classes, help with tax returns, etc.
But that’s immigrant policy — how we treat people whom we’ve invited to live among us. Republicans can use immigration policy — whom and how many we admit from abroad — to their political advantage by arguing, correctly, that lower numbers will help American workers. Make the Democrats the party of illegal aliens, cheap labor, and corporate greed. Senator Jeff Sessions has been especially persistent in arguing that a more moderate level of immigration needs to be part of a broader pro-worker conservative reform agenda. The issue is ripe to help Republicans become the party of workers, if only they have the sense to use it.
Professor Gimpel’s new analysis reminds us of something that has been clear for some time: If Republicans continue to support mass legal immigration, they will have to move to the left to remain competitive with those new voters. Alternatively, the GOP has a chance of remaining relatively conservative only if it works to reduce the level of future legal immigration.
As a great man once said, this is a time for choosing.
— Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.