If there is one thing we know about Donald Trump, it is that he wants to strengthen America’s borders and drive down immigration levels. So there is no small irony in the fact that the most likely end result of his insurgent presidential campaign will be the weakening of border enforcement and a drastic increase in immigration levels.
True, Trump has helped make immigration one of the central issues in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, and his success may well have stiffened the spine of anti-immigration conservatives. Yet Trump’s rhetoric has not just been heard by Republicans. It has also been heard by independents and Democrats. While it looks as though Trump’s rise has had virtually no effect on attitudes toward immigration among Republicans — a large majority of GOP voters believed that immigration levels should be decreased before Trump, and they feel the same way now — it has had a not insignificant effect on attitudes among Democrats, and in particular among the elite Democrats who set the party’s agenda.
To be clear, Trump has not single-handedly made Democrats embrace high immigration levels. There has been a spike since last fall in the share of Democrats taking a pro-immigration stance, and Trump surely played a role there. But that’s only part of the story. Over the past decade, the gap in partisan perceptions of immigrants has widened, with Republicans taking an increasingly skeptical view of the virtues of mass immigration and Democrats moving in the opposite direction. For example, the share of Democrats believing that immigrants strengthen the country has climbed from 49 percent in 2006 to 78 percent in 2016, while it has gone from 34 percent to 35 percent among Republicans. What accounts for this longer-term shift among Democrats? There are a number of factors at work. The composition of the Republican and the Democratic electorates has changed over time, and as the salience of the immigration issue has increased, at least some anti-immigration Democrats and pro-immigration Republicans have presumably switched sides. Older voters tend to be more skeptical about immigration than younger voters are, and the Democratic coalition is somewhat younger than the Republican coalition.
Moreover, naturalized immigrants are more likely to identify as Democrats than as Republicans, and naturalized immigrants are, not surprisingly, more pro-immigration, not least out of a desire to bring their family members to the U.S. Family immigration accounts for two-thirds of all lawful immigration, and any serious effort to reduce immigration levels would necessarily involve making it more difficult for naturalized immigrants to bring, say, adult daughters and sons into the country. Recently, the economists Anna Maria Mayda, Giovanni Peri, and Walter Steingress found that as the share of immigrants in the adult population of a given U.S. state increases, so does the Democratic vote share. The main driver of this phenomenon is that naturalized immigrants vote for Democrats at higher rates than natives do. While some pro-immigration conservatives attribute this pattern to the immigration issue alone, the fact that households headed by naturalized immigrants tend to have lower incomes than those headed by natives, and to rely more heavily on safety-net programs, undoubtedly contributes to it. As long as most immigrants have below-average incomes, it stands to reason that they will favor the party of redistribution.
So why blame Trump for the immigration-policy disaster to come? While Trump’s champions insist that their candidate has shifted the mainstream conversation on immigration to the right, I would argue that Trump’s noxious tone has made it much harder for restrictionists to win new allies. Some voters who might have otherwise been open to calls for more-stringent border enforcement and a more selective immigration policy have recoiled from Trump’s thinly veiled appeals to racial and ethnic resentment. This is true among Democrats and independents, but it is also true among anti-Trump Republicans. As long as Trump is the most visible figure on the anti-immigration right, extremists on the other side of the immigration issue seem sober-minded by comparison.
Early in March, Univision’s Jorge Ramos, a fervent advocate of mass immigration who also happens to be a news anchor, asked Hillary Clinton to promise that she would not deport unauthorized-immigrant children. Clinton made that pledge, and she went even further, telling Ramos that she did not want to deport the families of unauthorized-immigrant children, either. This has long been a goal of the partisans of amnesty — to extend deportation relief beyond those who entered the United States unlawfully as children, to their parents. Clinton has accepted this goal without hesitation, making it a central part of her immigration agenda. At one point she said that she would deport immigrants only if they had criminal records. Bernie Sanders followed suit.
One can imagine a different universe in which pragmatic Democrats questioned the wisdom of what amounts to an immigration free-for-all. If the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination say that they have no desire to deport immigrants without criminal records, are they not suggesting that we welcome all comers, whether they enter lawfully or otherwise? But have Clinton and Sanders been forced to answer for endorsing lawlessness at the border? Not at all. Instead, they seem eager to double down.
Bernie Sanders will not be our next president. Nevertheless, his sharp change of course on immigration reflects a broader trend. Earlier in the campaign, in an interview with Ezra Klein, editor of the liberal news site Vox, Sanders objected to the idea of open borders, deriding it as part of an anti-labor agenda advanced by the Koch brothers, a rare instance of a Sanders utterance I find entirely sensible. He has since been keen to curry favor with immigration advocates, in recognition of their growing power in the Democratic coalition. It turns out that if you’re trying to win the nomination of a party that increasingly relies on the votes of struggling immigrants who depend on wage subsidies, Medicaid, and food stamps to lead decent lives, calls for limiting immigration aren’t going to fly.
No one understands this better than Hillary Clinton. During his first term, Bill Clinton sensed that anti-immigration sentiment was becoming more potent, and so he endorsed the findings of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, which backed modest reductions in legal-immigration levels and more-rigorous immigration-enforcement efforts. Almost immediately, Clinton met with a fierce backlash from pro-immigration groups on the left and the right, and he soon abandoned his flirtation with a more restrictionist stance.
Instead, the Clinton administration backed the Citizenship USA initiative, designed to make it much easier for immigrants, including formerly unauthorized immigrants legalized under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, to naturalize. As Republicans in Congress fought to limit the access of recent immigrants to safety-net programs, a large wave of immigrants naturalized in part to oppose these measures through the political process. The politics of immigration had irrevocably changed, and Bill Clinton deftly switched sides. Hillary Clinton has clearly not forgotten the lessons of that era. Naturalized low-wage immigrants depend on public assistance, and as they have brought more of their similarly poor relatives with them to the U.S., these immigrants have become a bedrock Democratic constituency.
If Hillary Clinton is our next president, an outcome that is all but foreordained if Trump is the Republican nominee, it is a safe bet that her first big legislative push will be on immigration. She will characterize her victory over Trump as a repudiation of the restrictionist cause and a mandate for immigration legislation more permissive than the comprehensive immigration-reform bill backed by President Obama. Unlike Obama and George W. Bush, who felt obligated to make their pathways to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants seem onerous, Clinton has made it clear that she intends to make her pathway to citizenship as cheap and easy as possible.
It is not obvious that conservatives in Congress, who could suffer major losses if Trump is their party’s presidential nominee, will be in a position to prevent such legislation from passing. Let’s assume that Clinton succeeds in establishing her immigration agenda as the law. By extending legal status to unauthorized immigrants and giving them a pathway to citizenship, Clinton will bring unauthorized immigrants out of the shadows and into America’s social safety net.
In 2013, the Migration Policy Institute found that almost one-third (32 percent) of unauthorized-immigrant adults lived in families below the poverty level, and 62 percent lived in families earning less than 200 percent of the poverty level. A narrow 51 percent majority of unauthorized-immigrant children lived in families earning less than the federal poverty level; 78 percent lived in families earning less than 200 percent of that level; and only 8 percent lived in families earning more than 400 percent of it. Moreover, only 30 percent of unauthorized-immigrant adults are proficient in English, a strong barrier in itself to upward mobility. In recognition of the fact that the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants are so poor, the Gang of Eight, a group of senators who unsuccessfully pushed for comprehensive reform, sought to win conservative support by proposing to bar immigrants granted provisional legal status from various safety-net programs. Leaving aside whether these restrictions would have been enforced in practice — I’m skeptical — it is hard to imagine Clinton backing such limits.
The effects of new immigration legislation won’t stop there. Once these immigrants are granted citizenship, they will be able to sponsor family members. The 1986 amnesty, which legalized roughly 3 million unauthorized immigrants, led to a surge in family immigration. One assumes that legalizing as many as 10 million unauthorized immigrants would lead to a surge in family immigration that was quite a bit larger. And these immigrants would encounter a labor market far less hospitable to less-skilled workers than that of the 1980s and 1990s, when demand for such labor was comparatively high and real minimum wages were relatively low. By backing a steep increase in the federal minimum wage at the same time that she opens the floodgates to less-skilled immigration, Clinton would re-create the conditions seen in much of Europe, where immigrants have been priced out of the labor market by rigid regulations.
Whether or not Clinton succeeds in passing sweeping legislation, she has explicitly promised to shield virtually all unauthorized immigrants from deportation. In other words, she has promised that, under a Clinton administration, there will be no danger that the agencies charged with enforcing our immigration laws will do their job. Over time, the unauthorized immigrants whom Clinton will have essentially invited into the country will form families and give birth to citizen children. They will then become virtually impossible to remove.
So far, conservatives haven’t given much thought to Hillary Clinton’s immigration agenda. To the extent that her views have been addressed at all, they’ve been treated as little more than campaign bluster. That is a mistake. Donald Trump’s success has made it far more likely that she will be our next president, and we need to start thinking very hard about what that means.