The modern political dynamic of Republicans being “against” immigration and Democrats being “for” immigration was reinforced by Trump’s victory last November. Campaigning against illegal immigrant criminals and on building a “beautiful wall,” Trump found strong appeal in the Midwest and Southwest. He even found strong appeal in rural Maine and suburban New Hampshire.
Republicans being the party of national sovereignty and limiting illegal immigration is nothing new. The party ultimately sunk George Bush’s Immigration Reform efforts in 2006 and many of its voters found appeal in Trump’s harsh rhetoric. One could argue the election of Trump moved the GOP further right on immigration. It’s more true than not. But it also ignores the other thing 2016 showed us in picture perfect clarity. Just how far left the Democratic Party has moved on immigration. The Democrats leftward lurch on immigration made them vulnerable to the exact kind of rhetoric Trump was pedaled among their “Blue Wall” coalition of Midwestern whites and urban blacks.
To showcase just how far left the party has moved on immigration we can look at three major immigration proposals. The 1986 Immigration Control and Reform Act, George Bush’s failed 2006 Immigration Reform failure and Barack Obama’s Executive Order establishing DACA (Deferred Action for Children Arrivals).
In 1986, the final version of the law passed with the support of a majority of Democrats and almost half of Republicans in the House while in the Senate more than half of Democrats and Republicans supported it. Both Republicans and Democrats supported the creation of immigration enforcement mechanisms in return for amnesty for the nation’s then illegals and carve-outs for business not to be held responsible for hiring illegals. This marked the beginning of the burgeoning relationship between pro-immigrant business groups and Democrats.
In 2006, a reeling Bush Presidency attempted to pivot from its failure on Social Security reform to Immigration Reform. The best it could come up with was the Secure Fences Act, signed October 25th, a mere week in a half before the GOP lost Congress. The bill passed 80-19 in the Senate but in the House a solid two-thirds majority of Democrats voted against the border security measure.
Lastly, DACA was the brain-child of the Obama White House who knew they needed minorities to win reelection. In 2012, the Obama White House, frustrated at Congress not sending them immigration reform language (geesh, no mind-reading) decided to create a pathway to legalization for illegal children. Like then, today, the idea is not unpopular but the way it was done is largely viewed as unconstitutional and the Trump administration is winding down the EO.
Of course, by themselves, these three actions do not paint a complete picture of how far left the party has become. The leftward drift of the Democratic Party has only increased since the new millennium. Speaking in 2006, a freshman US Senator said, “When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.” That Senator was Barack Obama.
The leftward tilt of the party has only accelerated as the party has become ever more reliant on immigrants votes to win elections. From an electoral perspective this makes sense as the party has shed blue-collar whites. But, what is more striking, is just how far leftward the party has drifted on the economic benefits and costs of immigration.
In 2005, liberal blogger Glen Greenwald wrote, “Illegal immigration wreaks havoc economically, socially, and culturally; makes a mockery of the rule of law; and is disgraceful just on basic fairness grounds alone.” In 2006, liberal columnist Paul Krugman wrote that “Immigration reduces the wages of domestic workers who compete with immigrants” and that “the fiscal burden of low-wage immigrants is also pretty clear.” Krugman’s conclusion: “We’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants.”
Today, you’d be shot if you even came close to acknowledging these uncomfortable realities. Or even just considering them. In 2008, the party had done a complete 180 and called illegal immigrants “our neighbors” Yet, it kept in language saying “Those who enter our country’s borders illegally, and those who employ them, disrespect the rule of the law.” By 2016, that was all gone. In fact, the word illegal was nowhere to be found.
Why Has This Happened?
There are a few reasons why Democrats have run to the left on the issue. The first is that illegal immigration has dropped compared to prior years. To some Democrats, it does not seem to be a major issue and in the era of Trump Democrats see it as dog whistling racism.
But, even if illegal immigration has dropped somewhat, it has not been by much. Meanwhile, the economy has stayed relatively flat, especially in regards to wages. The threat Krugman warned about with low wage workers stealing available, good paying low skill jobs has not disappeared.
More likely, the better explanation is political. After 2008, Democrats concluded their path to a permanent majority resided in the growing Latino population. The latent “Emerging Democratic Majority” had finally emerged. Even after 2010, Democrats stuck to this belief and thought 2010 was a one-off election.
It was inevitable that as Democrats sidled up to Latinos and attempted to win larger percentages of their vote they would be influenced by immigrant activism. After 2010, fewer Southern and suburban Democrats were in the party to even out the most pro-immigrant impulses of the party. In 2012, running neck and neck with Mitt Romney, Barack Obama decided to implement DACA to gain crucial ground among the electorate. According to the New York Times, this was because the White House was “Facing growing pressure from Latino leaders and Democrats who warned that because of his harsh immigration enforcement, his support was lagging among Latinos who could be crucial voters in his race for re-election.”
Of course, it is not just conventional electoral politics that has driven this dynamic. The business, especially the tech sector, has played a large part. The Democratically aligned tech industry benefits immensely from the H-1B program. These businesses use the power of their wallets and lobbying arms to pressure Democrats to shut up about any downsides of immigration. The billion dollar tourism and entertain industry, like Disney Corporation, joined with Mark Zuckerberg to form a pro-immigration agenda.
Up until 2015, there were some Democrats who did not agree with this group-think. Interviewed by Vox.com, Bernie Sanders reacted in horror when asked whether the US should sharply raise the level of immigration permitted to combat global poverty. Sanders, a true working man populist, argued the Koch Brothers would love such a plan (so would his adopted party).
Unsurprisingly, Sanders came under attack. Hillary Clinton called such language “ugly.” Vox’s own Dylan Matthews echoed such language. ThinkProgress responded with a blog post stating the Senator “was supporting “The idea that immigrants coming to the U.S. are taking jobs and hurting the economy, a theory that has been proven incorrect.” Knowing he needed Latino votes Sanders shifted course and by early 2016 echoed the Democratic group-think.
What The Literature Says
Moving away from the politics of the moment for a second, is the claim that “immigrants coming to the US are taking jobs” incorrect? Well, if you believe the progressive commentariat the answer is yes. But, the academic literature has a much more nuanced view.
According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine the data led to “Groups comparable to … immigrants in terms of their skill may experience a wage reduction as a result of immigration-induced increases in labor supply.” But it is also important to keep in mind many academics live in a world where immigration is celebrated. More importantly, a lot of their funding comes from pro-immigration businesses.
For example, Microsoft, a massive corporation that has benefited greatly from immigration, funded the work of the scholar who wrote a New York Times Magazine essay titled “Debunking the Myth of the Job-Stealing Immigrant” Worse, the author, Giovanni Peri, was declared a leading scholar on the issue.
The science of economics should be impartial. But, as has happened in the political realm, it seems the common narrative is to pretend there is no dissension in the ranks. Donald Davis, a UC Davis economics professor, who has studied the issue of immigration since the 1980’s has noted the profession seems to move heaven and earth to put immigration in a positive light.
The Real Story
Immigration does have some benefits. Perhaps the largest is the long-term impact where fewer native born Americans are having kids and immigrants are the main reason the US population is growing. This means long-term, the country will rely on immigrant children to pay taxes that support the nation’s aging native population and prop up its entitlement system.
But immigration is not always a boon. Particularly, for the Americans who compete against immigrants for work. These Americans are the least educated among us as more than a quarter of the most recent immigrants lack a high-school diploma education. The irony of this dynamic is that the US immigration system pits two group liberals care they claim about the most against each other: the working poor and immigrants.
Instead of talking solutions Democrats have taken the easy road out. Let’s side with the growing electoral bloc and leave the rest behind. But, this ignores practical solutions such as taking the US to a merit based system, an idea Trump supports. Liberals oppose this idea because, well, it comes from Trump, and it would deny families the chance to be reunited. Current immigration law favors the family members of immigrants already living in the US.
Returning to academics for a second, Robert Putnam has suggested greater diversity makes Americans less charitable and less willing to redistribute wealth. Putnam’s research, which depends on the idea of social capital, argues society tends to be less generous when people do not talk or look like them. There is some evidence to back this up. Trump did best in the least diverse parts of the country while Clinton and Johnson did best in the most diverse.
However, most interesting, some data says greater diversity leads to people of the same groups being less trusting of each other. While that may be true from a racial or ethnic perspective the data hints at educational and rural vs. urban environments being the primary driver.
What Democrats Don’t Get