The Immigration Debate Is Partially about Political Power

Demonstrators at an immigration reform rally in Washington, D.C., October 8, 2013. (Jason Reed/Reuters)
Most immigrants have historically voted Democratic.

The American political discourse is not famous for its high tone. We the people do not have dispassionate conversations about the appropriate levels of taxation, regulation, and social welfare, so much as we accuse one another of being enemies of all that is good and right. It has always been this way, more or less. Mass, participatory politics did not exist before the United States, and apparently this is just how these things work when you give the people the right to decide their own fate.

Yet even by the admittedly diminished standards of our “civil” discourse, immigration is, and has always been, an issue that we seem uniquely unable to discuss straightforwardly or calmly. This dates all the way back to the 1790s, when the Federalists more or less accused Republican-leaning immigrants of being agents of a foreign power. That set the tone for everything that followed.

There are many reasons for this, but I want to focus on one — perhaps the biggest one, or at least one whose importance is belied by the fact that it is hardly ever discussed. That is: calculations of raw political power.

A few preliminary thoughts on power. First, it is of a finite quantity in any situation. It is not like wealth, which grows over time. Power that I have is necessarily power that you cannot possess. Second, in a democratic society such as ours, power is ultimately based on votes. A majority in this country can more or less do what it wants, at least eventually. We have various checks and balances in place, but these mostly have the effect of slowing down a majority. Sooner or later, the half-plus-one side will get what it wants, if it wants it badly enough.

And immigration relates directly to political power, in at least three ways.

First, immigrants have historically voted Democratic. This dates all the way back to the 1790s. Both parties have always had large populations of established constituencies, but the Democrats have tended to include the preponderance of populations who are relatively new to the United States. So, for example, today’s Democrats are a coalition of upscale gentry liberals and immigrants, among other groups. It has not always been this way. Cubans have been strong Republicans, at least historically, for instance. Still, it is true enough that both parties can reliably estimate which of them will be better off based on increases and decreases in immigration. After all, the hurdles to citizenship are far from insurmountable — immigrants can go through a process to vote, and their children are immediately granted citizenship so long as they were born here.

Second, immigration affects apportionment in the House of Representatives. The House is apportioned based on total population, not citizenship. So citizens in places where immigrant populations tend to migrate are going to be better represented in the House than citizens where they do not migrate. In terms of political power in the post-war era, immigration has largely worked to the benefit of the Sun Belt, at the expense of the Rust Belt. That may or may not benefits Democrats in practice, because it comes down to how the lines are drawn in individual states. But the general trajectory has been to shift representation southward and westward.

Political power is finite. What one group has, another necessarily lacks.

Third, there is an unprecedented concentration of governing authority in the federal government over the last 80 or so years. It used to be that many decisions affecting our lives were left up to state and local governments, or to individuals. But since the New Deal, power has migrated to Washington, D.C. What this means is that increases in immigrant populations that occur far from one’s home could in theory have real effects on how one is governed in all manner of ways. This is especially important, given the tendency of the two parties to run roughly 50/50 to each other in the post-war era. It does not take a lot to shift the balance of power one way or another.

Again, all of this is beside the economic benefits of immigration. Economic activity generates wealth that previously did not exist, which can be distributed in ways that make everybody better off.

Political power is an entirely different thing. It is finite. What one group has, another necessarily lacks.

I think this helps explain why our immigration debate almost exclusively revolves around extreme cases that provoke maximum sympathy from voters. On the pro-immigrant side, there is always a reference to children. On the anti-immigrant side, there is always a reference to violent crime. Neither reflects the main impact of immigration policy on the United States, but both are meant to evoke strong emotions in voters. Granted, politicians often use extreme cases to persuade voters on all manner of issues, but extremity has become the norm in our discussions on immigration.

Ultimately, the reason may be that we the people just cannot bring ourselves to think straight on immigration — because in an evenly divided, strongly centralized governing system that is premised on majority rule, the stakes are extremely high.

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