One of the chief criticisms of the DREAM Act (or of any amnesty) is that it will have long-lasting repercussions on legal immigration. Once naturalized, “Dreamers” can sponsor their parents and other family members, turning what was supposed to be a limited amnesty for longtime U.S. residents into an unintended surge in legal immigration.
Or maybe not so unintended. Now that immigration-advocacy groups and associated ethnic lobbies have become major constituencies of the Democratic party, the political ramifications of mass immigration have become difficult to ignore. One need not be a partisan or a cynic to believe that the term “undocumented Democrat” is not merely a conservative epithet but in fact exactly the way Chuck Schumer and other Democratic leaders look on illegal immigrants in the U.S. today. The problem is not just with amnesty but with the structure of our legal-immigration system. Because of family preferences, immigration begets more immigration — a fact of which Schumer is keenly aware.
The political impact of immigration today is fairly clear. The foreign-born gave about two-thirds of their votes to Hillary Clinton in 2016, as did Asian and Hispanic Americans (both immigrant and native), whose explosive demographic growth is rooted almost entirely in immigration from over past 50 years, most of it legal. Asians and Hispanics supplied roughly 20 percent of Clinton’s vote total — close to the contribution made by black Americans, who have long been considered an indispensable part of the Democratic coalition.
In a report covering elections prior to 2016, University of Maryland political scientist James Gimpel found that increased levels of immigration at the county level are associated with decreasing support for the Republican party, even after controlling for income and prior demographics. Notably, Gimpel found that immigration turns counties blue not simply because of the votes supplied by immigrants — many are not citizens and therefore cannot vote — but also because of outmigration by natives who dislike the cultural and economic changes associated with immigration. It is that kind of reaction that helps explain why Republicans are still in office despite decades of immigration by people inclined to support Democrats. While the Democrats added majorities of Hispanics and Asians to their coalition, they have lost most of the white working class. West Virginia, for example, went from a Dukakis-supporting Democratic stalwart to deep-red Trump country in less than 30 years.
Already the new coalition has changed the Republican party, as the populist leanings of the party’s Trump supporters conflict with the old pro-business wing led by Paul Ryan. These tensions are to be expected, as the shifting coalitions in a two-party system necessitate changes in strategy. The question, therefore, is not whether immigration will destroy the GOP — there will always be two parties in a two-party system — but whether Republicans can continue to stand for small government and traditional values as the electorate is transformed.
Optimists make several arguments for why mass immigration need not weaken the conservative cause. None are reassuring. The first is that immigrants are “natural conservatives” who would vote for the small-government party if only it would abandon its skepticism of immigration. Personally, I find it difficult to see how support for mass immigration, with the vast cultural and economic changes that it brings about, could be in any sense “conservative” to begin with. More to the point, however, University of Alabama political scientist George Hawley has shown that the natural-conservative storyline is more myth than fact. Immigrants, as well as Hispanics and Asians of any nativity, are to the left of the average American voter on fiscal issues. For example, according to Pew, 75 percent of Hispanics say they would prefer a bigger government with more services over a smaller government with fewer services, compared with just 41 percent of the general public.
Hawley notes that Hispanics do show conservative tendencies on abortion, but social issues do not seem to motivate their vote as much as economic ones. He concludes:
If the Republican Party became just as progressive as the Democratic Party on immigration but remained conservative on all other issues, would a large number of immigrants embrace the Republican Party? Given the survey data above, it is likely that a large majority of the new voters would continue to support Democratic candidates. Indeed, data from the Pew Hispanic Center further suggests that far more undocumented immigrants would become Democrats than Republicans if they were granted citizenship and became eligible to vote.
Some optimists acknowledge immigrants’ attraction to big government but believe that it can be fixed with better messaging. “It’s really hard to get people to listen to you . . . if they think you want to deport their grandmother,” Marco Rubio famously remarked. But many Republican leaders never wanted to deport Grandma. Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, and John McCain all supported amnesty or expanded legal immigration, or both. None received more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote. This does not imply that outreach is a waste of time, of course, but it does suggest that messaging has its limits as a recruitment tool. Sometimes people simply disagree with the policy in question.
Another optimistic perspective is that ideological differences will disappear as immigrants assimilate. Again, this is not sufficiently reassuring. Ascendant left-wing majorities, even when short-lived, can permanently change the course of American politics. The most obvious examples are the New Deal and the Great Society, both major expansions of government enabled in part by the addition of Great Wave immigrants and their children (mainly white Catholics and Jews) to the Democratic coalition. White Catholics eventually moved to the political center, but not before Republicans made their peace with the entitlement state. Furthermore, white Catholics moderated as they moved firmly into the economic and cultural mainstream. Hispanics do not appear to be as upwardly mobile.
In the end, the optimism about immigrants becoming small-government and traditional-values voters is just that — optimism, not a justified confidence that importing voters who prefer Democrats will have a benign effect on conservatism. For some, this optimism is rooted in the sentiment that immigration restriction is unjustified on libertarian grounds, regardless of the political impact. Reason magazine editor Brian Doherty made that sentiment explicit:
The freedom to move and the freedom to do business and personal relations with anyone we want no matter where they were born is a core freedom. . . . There are many horrible, freedom-destroying things we could do to ensure a more libertarian electorate, from barring the expression of bad ideas to taking the franchise away from identifiable “wrong thinking” groups, and none of them are in any way libertarian, which is a philosophy of restricting government action, via persuasion, not via barring the non-libertarian.
This is a persuasive argument for those who believe that foreigners have a fundamental right to immigrate to the United States. For the rest of us conservatives, it sounds like a suicide pact.