Liberalizing Immigration Will Liberalize the U.S.
As congressional Republicans attempt to resuscitate their image in the wake of the shutdown -- and as they prepare for the 2014 midterm elections -- we will see immigration reform presented as a political panacea for the beleaguered American right. Supporting a comprehensive bill would allegedly solve the Republican Party's longstanding problems with Latino and Asian voters and maintain the party's viability in the face of major demographic changes.
Unfortunately for the GOP, there are reasons to doubt that immigration reform will significantly boost Republican fortunes. In particular, survey data indicate that immigrants are well to the left of the American public on a number of key issues -- a fact that is important not only for political strategists, but also for anyone contemplating the ways in which an overhaul of immigration policy might change the country's demographics.
Any immigration reform that grants a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, or substantially increases rates of legal immigration, will necessarily result in millions of new voters. Will these voters be amenable to the Republican Party's message of small government and cultural conservatism? We obviously cannot know for sure how future citizens will feel about public policy, but it is not unreasonable to expect immigrants in the near future to be similar to current immigrants. If that is the case, then we can anticipate that far more immigrant voters will support the Democratic Party than the Republican Party.
Few publicly available political surveys have a sufficient number of observations to allow researchers to estimate the attitudes of foreign-born respondents with any accuracy. However, a few surveys in recent years did have a large sample size (in the tens of thousands), which allows us to see whether immigrants differ from native-born citizens on a variety of policy issues. Both the 2008 National Annenberg Election Survey and the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study had more than 1,000 immigrant respondents, and far more non-immigrant respondents.
On average, immigrants were more progressive than the native-born on all issues related to spending -- which is a bad sign for a party that emphasizes spending reductions as a key part of its policy platform. Immigrants were more likely to endorse the Affordable Care Act, support the financial bailout and stimulus package, and favor higher taxes -- though on taxes the difference was tiny and within the margin of error. Immigrants were also more likely to trust the federal government than were the native-born, and a large majority of immigrants favored affirmative action.
It is worth noting that immigrants were more conservative than non-immigrants on a few non-spending questions. In both surveys, immigrants were less supportive of abortion rights than were native-born respondents. On other social issues, like gay marriage and stem-cell research, there was no meaningful difference between immigrants and the native born.
All of this is congruent with other research examining the preferences of racial and ethnic groups that make up the majority of recent immigrants. Both Asian Americans and Latinos are considerably more progressive, on average, than non-Hispanic whites across multiple issues. Furthermore, although it is established that Latinos tend to be more conservative than Anglos on issues like abortion, there is little evidence suggesting that abortion is a key determinant of vote choice for most Latinos.
This is important because it suggests that immigrants support the Democratic Party in greater numbers than they support the Republican Party for reasons other than immigration. To be clear, this does not mean that immigration is not an important determinant of vote choice and party identification for immigrants or the children of immigrants. There surely are many voters who dislike the Republican Party specifically because of the party's tradition of restrictionism.
However, there is an important followup question. 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.
Immigration reform is probably not the solution to the Republican Party's electoral woes. The GOP's problem with immigrant voters, and Latinos and Asian Americans more generally, is based on more issues than immigration. As the century progresses and the demographics of the United States continue to change, partly as result of continued high levels of legal immigration, the percentage of the electorate that supports small-government conservatism is going to shrink. Liberalizing immigration policy further will likely accelerate that process.
George Hawley is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama.