What made immigration so emotional, especially among Republicans? Why did the “caravan” dominate the run-up to the midterms? Why should anyone see border crossings as a “national emergency,” or have a government shutdown over a wall? It’s not just Donald Trump; Trump’s political rise was as much a result as a cause of the rising intensity of the immigration issue. Nor is a kneejerk assignment of blame to racism or xenophobia an adequate explanation, without some reason why today is different from ten or twenty years ago. For the root cause of the shift, we need to look deeper.
Immigration was long a secondary issue in American politics. Legislation in Washington or ballot issues in California were hotly debated, but immigration was rarely central to national politics after the fashion of war, taxes, or abortion. Moderation and compromise were not fatal to national Republican politicians like George W. Bush or John McCain, while Democratic candidates like Hillary Clinton in 2008 and John Kerry in 2004 tried to sound cautious, moderate notes as well.
It’s not the mobility of international terrorists, either; angst over Hispanic and Asian immigrants, who are at the center of many immigration controversies, has little to do with terrorism. The issue in general took a back seat after September 11, when the War on Terror was the dominant topic in American politics. As the Washington Times editorialized in October 2004: “It’s no secret that both presidential candidates are steering clear of discussions on immigration reform. The issue resonates with a majority of Americans on both sides of the aisle in such a way that makes it difficult to pander to any one voting bloc without severely offending another.” That seems a very long time ago now, when the issue polarizes the two parties more than it divides them internally.
I submit that there are three related answers, which need to be taken together because none of them explains the phenomenon alone. First, the facts: America today really does have an unusually large immigrant population, which has grown steadily for decades. Second, the emotional climate: We’ve lost the cultural self-confidence to keep accepting newcomers and let them make their own way and find their own place in our culture. That dynamic is both reflected in, and fed by, plummeting birthrates for native-born Americans. Third, the nature of the American political divide drives politically active people into ever-greater obsession with demographics, and that drives the tendency of each side to steps that further radicalize the other.
More Immigrants, More Debates
To start with, no matter what some people tell you, the impact of immigration isn’t all myth. Ground-level reality offers one reason why the issue has climbed in importance over the past decade. America today is home to more than 44 million immigrants, the largest immigrant population in the world and almost a quarter of the world’s immigrants. Nearly a fourth of those are illegal immigrants, who tripled as a share of the immigrant population between 1990 and 2007. That feeds popular sentiment that border crossings are out of control, even though the illegal-alien population has actually declined by nearly 20 percent over the past decade. Mexican immigration fell off so far as to be outnumbered by Mexicans returning home. While about a quarter of the foreign-born population still hails from Mexico, Asian immigrants have outnumbered Hispanic immigrants every year since 2010.
What remains is less a wave of new arrivals than a pool of foreign-born residents. Some 13.7 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born, nearly triple the share in 1970 and approaching the all-time high of 14.8 percent in the 1890s. The last time that figure was this high was the 1920s, when Congress last sharply restricted immigration after the First World War. In 1970, New York was the only state where immigrants were more than 9 percent of the population; today, immigrants are 27.2 percent of California’s people and more than 20 percent of New York’s, New Jersey’s, and Florida’s.
Demographics make the foreign-born conspicuous — 17.9 percent are non-Hispanic whites, compared with 67.3 percent of the native-born, while 27.1 percent are Asian, compared with 2.2 percent of the native-born. Among the foreign-born, 83.7 percent speak a language other than English at home, and just half are proficient in English, while 88.7 percent of native-born Americans speak only English at home.
Numbers alone, however, don’t explain the debate’s ferocity. 55 percent of immigrants live in just four states (California, Texas, New York, and Florida), but much of the political base for more restriction and harsher enforcement comes from the 34 states where less than 10 percent of the population is foreign-born, including less than 5 percent of the population of West Virginia, Mississippi, Montana, Alabama, Kentucky, Vermont, Maine, the Dakotas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Missouri, and South Carolina.
Historically, anti-immigrant sentiment has always been with us, dating back to the mid 1700s, and started appearing in law in federal restrictions aimed at Chinese immigration in particular in the 1870s and 1880s. But no controversy on the scale of today consumed the politics of the 1890s, when the foreign-born population was even larger than it is today. Only after the closing of the frontier and the cataclysm of the First World War (which also brought with it a global influenza epidemic, a deep recession, and a resurgent isolationism in foreign affairs) did the nation turn to broader restrictions on immigration, in the 1920s. We should ask what has changed in our own time to bring about a similar crisis.
A Culture without Anchors
To go beyond the numbers, it is important to recall that immigration fights are downstream of larger fears about the culture and economy. Americans today wrestle with a crisis of faith in our identity and future. When people feel that their homeland is out of their control, they worry more that someone else will take it over. We see that in the tone of hysteria that creeps into immigration conversations: not just traditional fears of crime and ghettos or clashes of language or culture, but screeds about “invasion” or, worse, “white genocide.”
A confident culture and a vibrant economy have little to fear from immigrants. In an America still filling its western frontier and rapidly expanding its economy, the waves of immigration between 1870 and 1914 were more an opportunity than a problem, and despite occasional flare-ups, such as the laws excluding Chinese immigrants or the anti-Catholicism of James G. Blaine, they were generally treated as such at the level of national politics and policy. It was, of course, easier to let new entrants sink or swim in the economy then, before the welfare state.
More recently, the New Frontier, post–Baby Boom America liberalized immigration laws in 1965 without much thought to harmful consequences, and the swaggering America of Reagan offered an open-handed amnesty in 1986. In between, we had the malaise years of the 1970s — but as noted above, the foreign-born population was vastly smaller then, and the huge Baby Boom cohort was entering the prime years of family formation. Only in our own era have we hit the intersection of a large foreign-born population, a stagnant native-born population, and a crisis of faith in our future.
America’s low birth rate — while not yet at the dire levels of Europe and Japan — leaves us more vulnerable to fears about mass immigration. Americans like to think that we are immune to all that, but U.S. birth rates fell to a 30-year low in 2017, while the share of births to immigrant parents is almost double their share of the existing population. A quarter of all American children today have at least one foreign-born parent.
A vicious cycle of waning civilizational self-confidence looms when the native-born have few children. A self-assured society envisioning opportunities for burgeoning young families has less reason to fear that new entrants will replace the existing culture rather than assimilate into it. Low-birth-rate countries, by contrast, grow dependent on importing new people to sustain the work force and the tax base for retirement programs. Immigrants are not a luxury but a need. With fewer homegrown children, newcomers and their children take on outsized visibility in communities, schools, and popular culture.
The backdrop of these anxieties is a one-two punch of loss of trust in institutions and an atomization of society that leaves people less connected to communities. The 2008 credit crisis and its aftermath, in particular, left a residue of corroded optimism and shaken faith in elites. And specific to immigration, there has been a long series of political broken promises over border security that has fed cynicism about government’s sincerity, from the empty promise that the 1986 amnesty would resolve illegal immigration to the failure to add border fencing authorized over a decade ago.
The gathering radicalization of the Left on immigration is partly a matter of ideological tribalism, partly a reaction to the Right, and partly due to Washington gridlock that stymied “comprehensive” reform in 2007 and 2013, leading to unilateral executive action by Barack Obama, which in turn was stymied by the courts. Political events like the California initiatives of the 1990s also accelerated the radicalization of both sides: The Left saw in them a dark anti-immigrant menace, while the Right saw popular initiatives thwarted in the courts and overrun in practice.
The social ills run deeper: epidemic addiction, decaying civic organizations, spreading loneliness and isolation, and declines in marriage and churchgoing. Immigrants did little to create these problems, but people are less apt to welcome strangers when they see their way of life and social contract as brittle, their government as unwilling or unable to respond, and their economic safety net as strained to bursting.
The Red and Blue Blues
Finally, there’s politics. The red–blue trench warfare of recent decades fuels hopes and fears of rapid demographic shifts of the kind that helped transform Nixon’s and Reagan’s California into a one-party enclave. Perceived stakes rise when socio-political mores change with disorienting speed, and when politicized universities and “woke” popular culture yield a generation that seems barely from the same planet as that of their elders. A closely divided, mutually mistrustful, and pervasively politicized society is apt to view new people through the lens of which tribe they will join to tip the balance.
Since the mid 1990s, two factors have conspired to make immigration a proxy war over the power of the political parties themselves. One is a partisan atmosphere in which the two parties are sorted into increasingly ideologically polarized camps, great social issues are increasingly decided by federal courts and by presidential orders that are controlled by winner-take-all national politics, and the political strength of the two factions are closely matched. When election after election is decided at small margins and is seen as having high stakes for fundamental aspects of our way of life, anything that might tip the balance becomes an object of irresistible fascination for both sides.
The other is the object lesson of California. The nation’s largest state seemed reliably Republican from 1952 to 1988, going for the GOP’s presidential ticket nine times in ten elections. Seven of those elections were won by the Republican. Ronald Reagan carried the state twice as California governor and twice as president, and another California Republican, Richard Nixon, won it in all three of his national races for president and in both of his races for vice president. In reality, the state was never that strongly Republican down-ticket, but it was obviously winnable. Bill Clinton’s victory in the three-way 1992 race seemed at first a fluke; at 46 percent he drew a smaller share of the vote than Michael Dukakis did in 1988. But the state shifted sharply by 1996, when Clinton carried it by 13 points, and it has only grown more lopsided since then, with Democrats approaching a 30-point margin in 2016. Republicans by 2018 were almost extinct in California, with Democrats winning 46 of 53 House races.
The remaining rump of California conservatives by now have mostly adopted a shrill, alarmed, “This could happen to you” tone on immigration, seeing the heavy influx of Mexican immigrants as the cause for the rapid decline of Republican fortunes there — a view that has some support, given that the state’s slide to the Democrats was a combination of a growing Hispanic vote and a leftward drift among the remaining white Californians. Meanwhile, many progressives, seduced by the notion that an “emerging Democratic majority” will any day now do the same to Texas and Florida, have adopted the same diagnosis, adding only the view that California Republicans sealed their own fate with the 1994 passage of the anti-illegal-immigrant Proposition 187 — a view that has adherents even on the right, given the hardening of Hispanic voter attitudes toward the California GOP.
A growing faction on the right these days echoes the apocalyptic theme of many California conservatives, who experienced demographic replacement as an existential political crisis and saw mass immigration as a national emergency requiring a “Flight 93” level of desperation. This sentiment was a core element of Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, and it is essential to understanding the talk of national emergencies.
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None of this is to say that concerns about immigration are illegitimate, or that we should not have a robust political debate about how many people to let into the country, who to let in, and how. Immigration affects our local and national economy and culture, and even our ability to talk to each other. But the explosiveness of today’s immigration debate is not a harbinger of trouble ahead; it is a sign that we were already in trouble.