A Future of Stronger American Political Support for Immigration

Despite the enthusiasm of many in the U.S. for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has called for building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, for expelling undocumented immigrants from American soil, and for banning Muslim immigrants, there are reasons for optimism about a future of increased political support for immigration into the U.S. These include demographic shifts between the two major American political parties and demographic changes to the country as a whole.

As those who have followed the American presidential campaign know, two of Trump’s core policy positions are opposition to free trade and undocumented immigration. David Brooks of the New York Times suggests that Trump’s emphasis on these issues may “smash and replace the entire structure of the American political debate.”  He notes that the debate over the size of government which has dominated American politics for decades could be transformed into one in which a “right-left establishment that supports open borders, free trade, cosmopolitan culture, and global intervention” competes with populists who advocate “closed borders, trade barriers, local and nationalistic culture and an America First foreign policy… When the frame of debate shifts to open/closed, sometime soon, the old coalitions will smash apart and new ones will form.” He also suggests that even if Mr. Trump fails to win in November, this new “open/closed” framework will emerge as the new political norm.

It is apparent that the Democratic Party would be the “open” party under the new framework, while the Republican Party would be the “closed” one. Notwithstanding large numbers of deportations under the Obama administration, in general Democratic politicians have been more receptive to immigration into the U.S. than Republican ones. For example, in 2013 all of the Democratic senators  in Congress voted for a bill that would have legalized millions of undocumented immigrants and increased legal immigration levels by 50 to 70 percent, while most Republican senators voted against the bill. Moreover, rank and file Democrats feel more positively about immigrants than do Republicans.

With demographic shifts between the two parties, support for immigration within the Democratic Party will only increase. Better educated white voters, who traditionally have voted for Republicans, are more likely to support the Democrat Hillary Clinton for president, while less educated white voters are increasingly abandoning the Democrats and supporting the populist Trump ticket. (See herehere, and here.)

David Wasserman and Thomas Edsall of the New York Times suggest that this shift is occurring regardless of the candidates in the current campaign, although the contest has quickened the pace. This is significant because apparently the better educated a person is, the more likely they are to be receptive to immigration.  As Edsall notes, the changes in the composition of the two political parties “have contributed to sharp changes, at least for the moment, in the outlook of Democrats and Republicans. Democrats, including the party’s elite, remain decisively liberal, and have become more cosmopolitan — more readily accepting of globalization, more welcoming of immigrants, less nationalistic — and more optimistic about the future.”

Better educated white voters will join with two other groups that lean Democratic: non-whites and millennials. Non-whites are even more likely than better educated white voters to both support Mrs. Clinton and be more positive about immigration. (See also here.)  Millennials lean left politicallyfavor Clinton, and are more positive about immigration than other age groups.  (See also here.) The unification of these three groups (which often overlap) within the Democratic Party ensures that it will push it to become even more pro-immigration.

Moreover, these groups provide great political strength for the Democrats. Even though only 36% of the non-Hispanic white population aged 25 or older has college degree or higher, the well-educated are more likely to actually vote in elections than those who are less educated.  Millennials are becoming a larger portion of the electorate, now equal in proportion to the Baby Boomers. The percentage of the population in the U.S. that is minority is growing, and, among children under five, whites are in the minority.  (See here and here) Moreover, the Democrats have been making gains among upper income whites (who overlap with the well-educated), further strengthening the party. Edsall adds that, despite the economic differences between its constituencies, the Democrats also will be more united than the Republicans.

The comfort Democrats have with immigration was evident in the reaction to a document released by Wikileaks, in which Hillary Clinton referred to her “dream for a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders…”  When she was asked about it during a debate, she stated that she was only talking about energy. It is unknown what her thinking was when she referred to open borders,  but her possible support for open borders, at least in one hemisphere, apparently didn’t weaken her support among Democrats. Any discomfort from the left seemed to be about the free trade portion of her remarks in the document.

The increasingly pro-immigration outlook of the Democratic Party and its strong prospects for future political success should eventually translate into policies that legalize undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and increase legal immigration levels. An open borders America may not be imminent, but it is moving in the right direction.

Joel has a bachelor’s degree in history from Pomona College and works as a teacher in Beaverton, Oregon.

See also:

our blog post introducing Joel
all blog posts by Joel

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