Bleg: four possible positions on immigration and US politics

There are lots of different theories about immigration and its impact on US politics, specifically on how it will affect the power balance between Democrats and Republicans. I am largely agnostic, though I doubt the validity of tipping point arguments. Logically, I can make out four broad positions one can stake on immigration and US politics. I’m curious to hear from readers and co-bloggers about the relative merits of the positions:

  1. Immigration good for Democrats, bad for Republicans regardless of either party’s position on immigration. In other words, even if the Republicans took a pro-immigration stance, more immigration would still hurt them. The electing a new people argument offered by Peter Brimelow of VDARE has this structure. Mark Krikorian of CIS also makes similar arguments. This argument naturally appeals to:
    • Those trying to sell restrictionism to the Republican Party.
    • Those trying to sell pro-immigration policies to the Democratic Party.
  2. Immigration good for Republicans, bad for Democrats regardless of either party’s position on immigration. I don’t know anybody who has taken this position, but I’m adding it for logical completeness. This argument naturally appeals to:
    • Those trying to sell pro-immigration policies to the Republican Party.
    • Those trying to sell restrictionism to the Democratic Party.
  3. Immigration good for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance: In this view, both parties need to compete to be more pro-immigration, and whichever party manages to be more pro-immigration will benefit more from immigration. This seems to be the view of many open borders advocates and other pro-immigration forces, such as my co-blogger Nathan here and here. This argument naturally appeals to pro-immigration forces trying to simultaneously make inroads into both parties, setting up a “race to open borders” between both parties.
  4. Immigration bad for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance: In this view, both parties gain from adopting a more restrictionist stance. Restrictionists who are trying to make a broad-based appeal to both parties would find this argument appealing. In this view, the vote of people with restrictionist sympathies matters a lot more than the votes of potential immigrants and their apologists. Thus, whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance will lose a lot more in terms of restrictionist votes, even if they gain a few immigrant votes. Such an argument, if believed, would lead to a “race to closed borders” between both parties. Some restrictionists have made these types of arguments, though they’ve largely focused on (1).

There are a lot of complications that can be added:

  • The story may be different for different subsets of immigrants based on ethnic group, skill level, country of origin, time within the US, etc.
  • It is possible to be pro-immigrant while being anti-immigration. It is also possible to appeal to the interests of immigrants qua ethnic group rather than qua immigrant.
  • It is possible to combined restrictionist rhetoric with a quiet support for more immigration, thus appealing to restrictionists. If you are a pro-Democratic Party person who believes a mix of (1) and (4), you would be tempted to favor apparently restrictionist rhetoric from your Party while quietly allowing for more immigration and more citizenship/amnesty.
  • Similarly, it is possible to combine pro-immigration rhetoric with a quiet support for less immigration, thus appealing to the vote of people who have solidarity with immigrants and favor a pro-immigration stance, while at the same time trying to curtail the growth of immigrant groups who may be hostile to your party. For instance, a pro-Republican Party person who believes a mix of (1) and (3) would be tempted to follow this strategy.

So, which of the stories (1)-(4) is most likely true? Please feel free to provide separate answers for different immigrant groups separated by whatever criteria you prefer, and feel free to incorporate the above complications or any others you can think of.

28 thoughts on “Bleg: four possible positions on immigration and US politics”

  1. Re #2, I recall co-blogger Chris has previously argued that non-whites are a natural constituency for libertarian ideals, and that libertarians/Republicans made a huge mistake in alienating them via their stance on US civil rights laws (for which there are theoretical good reasons to oppose, but pragmatically superior reasons to support, as William Buckley later acknowledged).

    With some empirical backing, this blogger argues that Muslim immigrants not only can be but historically *have been* a core Republican constituency, until totally alienated by the GOP’s identity politics post-9/11:

    1. Indeed I did in econlog comments, and I still think it’s generally true. But at the same time, I think that high-skill immigrants are the easier constituency to win over. Whereas with low skill immigrants there might have to be some active support for them to win them completely over, high-skill you can probably win simply by not being anti-immigrant. That blog you posted John shows. But even if libertarians/Republicans (though the grouping of those two is still shaky at best) failed to convince low-skill immigrants, the net effect of more immigration would still be to the benefit of libertarians/GOP than liberals/democrats. This is because the rich tend to have much greater influence on politics than the poor. As such, even if low skill immigration outnumbers high skill and tends to side with democrats, the net effect on the actual policies enacted would be towards a libertarian side because of the much greater effect of the wealthy immigrants.

      But does this mean that my political argument means that only high income immigrants should be let in? Not at all. Attacking some groups of immigrants might be associated with racial arguments that might turn away the high-skill immigrants into the arms of liberals. But even more importantly, this argument asserts that low-skill immigrants are nearly irrelevant to politics and therefore political arguments cannot be used as an excuse to keep out low skill immigrants.

  2. I have to question the reasoning ability of someone who would pose this as if it were an open question. This is not a theory or a prediction, it’s an empirical fact that you can ascertain just by looking at election results – immigrants vote majority Democrat by huge margins. Any debate on this question would have to start with that point, and then pose arguments for other conclusions – for example, #2 might be true (in the short term) if immigration causes more natives to vote Republican and that effect more than offsets the Democrat margins of immigrant voters, or #3 might be true if Republicans adopting open borders would cause a majority immigrants to start voting Republican. Because the direct evidence so strongly suggests #1, all of these other arguments are pretty extraordinary and would require extraordinary evidence to support them.

    But since I’ve gone to the trouble of giving you some arguments, I’ll also provide the most obvious counterarguments:

    2- There are many arguments against this that would just refute the notion that increased native votes outweigh the immigrant votes for the other side, but I’ll just point out the obvious problem that it is a short-term benefit only and in the long term it dooms the party to annihilation as the proportion of immigrant votes increases.

    3. There are likewise many arguments against this that would refute the notion that immigrants base their vote on a party’s immigration policy (or that immigrant voters are even reasonably informed on the issues), but I’ll just point out that neither McCain nor Bush – two of the strongest open borders advocates in either party – even cracked 40% of any major immigrant group, and that Mitt Romney got less than 30% despite not saying a single word about immigration except when absolutely forced to.

  3. Immigration is reported in surveys as a peripheral issue for most voters of every ethnicity. Domestic politics matters more.

    The Republicans purport to combine Christian social conservatism and fiscal conservatism. The fiscal conservatism is an intrinsically difficult sell for Mexican immigrants, who remain much poorer and much bigger users of government services 3 or 4 generations on. And historically attempts to appeal to black and mixed-race Hispanic voters (not the white upper class of Cuba, but the more mestizo population of Mexican-American migrants) on social conservatism have basically fallen flat.

    On the high-skill side, Jewish and Asian Americans show a lot of support for fiscal conservatism in surveys, and very strong opposition to race-based affirmative action (which hurts them). However, they are not Christian and have very strong opposition to Christian social conservatism.

    I would see Republicans reaping the greatest per capita benefits from either Christian high-skill migrants (to fortify their own party’s numbers) or extremely unpopular minorities with high rates of crime, unpopular moral views, and very high utilization of the welfare state. Such migrants could repel other voters strongly enough to neutralize their own votes. In Europe African Muslim migration seems to fit the bill. In the United States, the black share of the population is a stronger predictor of white Republican vote share than the Hispanic share, probably because Hispanics commit less crime, and generally do better on social indicators and social integration than African-Americans.

    Other types of immigration would force an adjustment of platforms as the Republicans moved to the new center, but I’m not sure which policy planks would bend how much.

    Policy-wise, if most of the electorate of the Democratic party was Asian-American (with the current mix of Asian groups, mostly the highest performing Asian groups), winning Democratic primaries would require much more sensible economic policies.

  4. My vote is a variation of #1 but I would rephrase it to emphasize that immigration doesn’t help “the Democratic Party” per se, it helps whichever party happens to be more socialist and tribal (=seen as more likely to give favors to the tribe(s) from which immigrants are largely drawn).

    Of course, that happens to be the Democratic Party nowadays, and immigrant voters aren’t dumb, so they’re quite good at recognizing this fact, that the Democratic Party is the party of the ‘big man who will be nicer to ‘their kind”. The Republicans are rightly or wrongly (and perhaps subconsciously) seen as being the ‘party of big-men who favor native whites’ and so immigrants (and most racial minorities) aren’t even tempted.

    One could logically posit the theoretical possibility of something like a polarity-reversal one of these days/decades, with the (R)s switching places with the (D)s as the more-socialist and -tribal party that immigrants flock to – just not anytime soon of course. So “immigrants favor (D)s” is the dynamic in place for the foreseeable future.

    You are also correct that it depends on the racial/social mixture of immigrants in question, but unless for some reason we are destined to see a giant wave of, say, Scotch-Irish immigrants sometime soon, the socialist-big-man-my-tribe-favoring dynamic is going to be the one that dominates.

    2 cents.


    Follow the link for data.

    ” But one thing I’ve seen is repeated commentary on the fact that Asian Americans have swung toward the Democrats over the past generation. The thing that pisses me off is that there is a very obvious low-hanging fruit sort of explanation out there, and I’m frankly sick and tired of reading people ramble on without any awareness of this reality. We spent the past few months talking about the power of polls, and quant data vs. qual (bullshit) analysis, with some of my readers going into full on let’s-see-if-Razib-is-moron-enough-to-swallow-this-crap mode.
    In short, it’s religion. Barry Kosmin has documented that between 1990 and 2010 Asian Americans have become far less Christian, on average. Meanwhile, the Republican party has become far more Christian in terms of its identity. Do you really require more than two sentences to infer from this what the outcome will be in terms of how Asian Americans will vote?
    Below I took the data from Pew’s Religious Identification Survey in terms of how all Americans lean politically based on religion, and compared it to how Asian Americans lean based on religion…”

    1. Atheist/secular, Buddhist, and Hindu Asian-Americans vote Democrat, while Christian ones vote Republican, or are evenly tied for Catholics.

      1. That’s an interesting observation. It fits in both theoretically and empirically. It seems to me this is more about the Republican Party’s position wrt Christianity and religion than with the doctrines of the religions per se that make people vote Democratic or Republican. Nonetheless, in so far as this refers to an immigration-independent position of the parties that makes immigration a more distinctive advantage for Democrats, it means that a more pro-immigration position from Republicans would still be an electoral loser for them, at any rate unless they are also willing to tamp down their immigration-independent “America is a Christian nation” rhetoric (and perhaps even if they do tamp it down).

        1. “unless they are also willing to tamp down their immigration-independent “America is a Christian nation” rhetoric (and perhaps even if they do tamp it down).”

          Yes to the parenthetical because it would not just require the Republicans to be less Christian than they are now, but less Christian than the Democrats. This is the problem with #3, also – any hypothetical that requires the Republicans to out-Democrat the Democrats must be ruled out on the grounds of impossibility.

          1. You’re right. Although I forgot to say this in the post, my assumption was that the party’s relative position on all issues other than immigration remain unchanged. Polarity reversals (as BK mentioned earlier) can occur, but I’m abstracting them away here.

    2. 1. It’s not at all obvious to me that the R party has become any ‘more Christian’ over the last 20 years,

      2. unless by ‘in terms of its identity’ you just mean that its % of voters who identify as Christian has increased (no idea whether this is true, but I wouldn’t doubt it). But that, of course, could just be the result of a self-fulfilling feedback: non- and squishy-Christians (including Asian-Americans?) leave the Rs, so it has ‘become more Christian in its identity’ – because the more hardcore Christians are left. The latter can’t really be a root explanation of the former.

      3. It might be worth adding that the Asian-Americans who have become less Christian over the past 20 years are, of course, not ‘immigrants’ – they are 1st or 2nd gen Americans, generally. The only lesson I can see here for the question of the OP is perhaps that Rs shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that trying to increase the % of immigrant flow from Christian countries is any solution to their demographic problem – because the ‘Christian effect’ will just fade out in a generation. In other words maybe the answer is really 1 full-stop, and there’s little comfort to be had for Rs in trying to pick and choose/ fine tune where immigrants come from.

      1. When you say “the answer is really 1 full-stop” you mean the answer for Republicans. The stronger this case becomes, the stronger the case for Democrats to support open borders. [My goal here is analytical, not normative].

        1. Apparently you’ve forgotten that #1 is “Immigration good for Democrats, bad for Republicans regardless of either party’s position on immigration.” So it sounds like Sonic Charmer was right, and you’ve just revealed your own biases.

          1. infovore, I am not disagreeing with Sonic Charmer, just clarifying a point that might be unclear from Sonic Charmer’s turn of phrase. I don’t quite see what biases this reveals. I never claimed to be unbiased about open borders, but in this post, I’m trying to figure out what people think about different plausible stories. The goal, for me at least, is purely analytical. I’m not a partisan in US politics, though I might agree or disagree to various degrees with the platforms of the parties.

          2. You said the answer was different for Republicans and Democrats, but your rationale suggested that both sides agreed with #1 but had different policy prescriptions as a result of it.

            1. Yes, exactly. Isn’t that what I said at both places? When Sonic Charmer said “The answer is really 1 full-stop” I was just clarifying that the policy prescription of putting a full stop to immigration would apply only to Republicans, not to Democrats.

          3. Oh, okay, I see what you are saying. I interpreted “1 full-stop” as saying “put a full stop to all immigration” whereas your interpretation was “#1 is the complete explanation.” Reading again, your interpretation fits the context better. My apologies for misreading.

          4. Vipul Naik,

            I appreciate your candor, which is rare on internet forums and especially when discussing controversial topics. I also must admit that I did not realize that you had interpreted that comment the way you did.

  6. What about the environment? According to the 1990 US census, there were 248 million in the USA, and in 2010, it was up to 308 million, an increase of 60 million or 24% in 20 years. I assume immigrants greatly increase how much fuel and other resources they use when they move to the USA. It seems that having people move to countries that have very high per capita usage may strain the environment.

  7. Tino Sanandaji on the question:

    He argues pretty convincingly that pro-immigration policies almost never let right-of-center policies win over poor minority immigrant groups,

    The fact that Reagan’s amnesty for illegal immigrants, John McCain’s support for amnesty, and Bush II’s support for amnesty brought them negligible HIspanic-specific gains is pretty informative about the U.S. case.

    And :

    “By no reasonable definition does, say, the Swedish parties of the centre-right or the Republican party of 2008 show “hostility” to immigrants, unless you define opposition to illegal immigration (shared by two thirds of Americans) and to the welfare state as inter-ethnic “hostility”. Indeed, that the pro-immigration Swedish centre-right is just as marginalized with third-world immigrants, as is the American right is a rather telling fact.

    If you ask Hispanics themselves, it turns out that they are far to the left of American whites regarding economic policy. As I have written, “In the United States, where while only 35% of non-Hispanic whites prefer higher taxes in return for more government services, the figure is 65% for first generation Hispanic immigrants, and 66% for second generation Hispanics.”

    This question has nothing to do with the Republican immigration policies (or, say, policing or drug policy), instead directly asking about attitudes regarding fiscal policies. The gap between Hispanics and whites regarding issues relating to the size of government is immense.

    When polled, Hispanics are closer to the Democrats regarding public health care and public education than on questions regarding immigration. If Hispanic support for Democrats was “primarily” driven by immigration policies (or some other proxy for inter-ethnic hostility), we would not observe this pattern.

    It should also be noted that the countries of origin of Hispanic immigrants, e.g Mexico, Argentina, El Salvador, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela have a long tradition of populism and left wing economic policy. Is this because of GOP “hostility” to illegal immigration? Hardly.”

  8. I dismiss the rational support of open borders without question. As a relatively aware and intelligent prole I realize that my way of life is threatened by low balling competitive foreigners who are willing to do what I do in exchange for a lesser standard of living than I am currently used to. As someone on the lower end of the pay scale, what do open borders have to offer me?

  9. The conclusion so far seems to be that pro-immigration policies help Democrats, hurt Republicans (Vipul’s #1). But I find the arguments very unconvincing. The trouble is that coalitions are very flexible, and parties change quicker than demography does.

    After the Civil War, blacks voted mainly Republican. That makes sense: it was Republicans who had led the North in the Civil War and liberated them from slavery. Today, they almost all vote Democrat. The switch occurred partly under FDR and partly under LBJ. Part of it was that they were relatively poor and favorable to big government, and of course the civil rights movement was also a big factor in the switch. (That’s because Democratic presidents and northern liberal Democrats were the most powerful backers of the civil rights movement, though the strongest opposition came from southern Democrats, and many Republicans favored it.)

    It’s easy to imagine a similar switch happening with respect to Hispanics on the immigration issue. If free-marketeers, Christian churches, and big business staged a coup in the Republican party to expel the nativists, firmly committing the party to amnesty, a crude extrapolation from the difference between the somewhat pro-immigration Bush and “self-deportation” Kris-Kobach-embracing Romney suggests that an explicitly pro-amnesty Republican party would win the Hispanic vote, as Charles Krauthammer recently argued. BK writes:

    “The fact that Reagan’s amnesty for illegal immigrants, John McCain’s support for amnesty, and Bush II’s support for amnesty brought them negligible HIspanic-specific gains is pretty informative about the U.S. case.”

    But this is a very inept analysis. First, Bush II’s support for amnesty brought him large Hispanic gains, even though Kerry also favored it. McCain downplayed his previous support for amnesty in 2008, and of course Obama also promised immigration reform. Reagan’s amnesty was passed by Democratic legislators. Assuming many Hispanic votes are swayed partly by the immigration issue, why would they shift towards the Republican side when the Republicans are still to the right of Democrats on the issue, just not by as much? The evidence doesn’t support BK’s claim at all, it suggests the opposite.

    I don’t think this kind of analysis is useful. There are just too many different coalitional possibilities, too many different immigration policy options, for this typology to be adequate. Moreover, the partisan focus renders the question almost uninteresting. If poor Hispanic immigrants are more redistributionist, the GOP could win those votes by becoming more redistributionist! If you’re just rooting for Republicans per se, that should be fine with you. Presumably, people are really interested in parties as vehicles for certain policy preferences, and they’d be as distressed if immigration caused the GOP to abandon their preferred policies, as they would be if it caused an ideologically unmoved GOP to lose elections. But of course, people support the GOP for a lot of different reasons. If open borders would favor high taxes but disfavor gay marriage, that would please a GOP voter who votes the social issues despite his disdain for Republican plutocracy, while a socially liberal free-marketeer would be horrified.

    I’d draw attention to one big pattern though. Back in the Gilded Age, the age of open borders, the government was much, much smaller. It was also more limited, more loyal to the Constitution. The time when the Constitutional order was overturned by new government activism was precisely the moment when mass immigration had been put a stop to. And it was after when the 1964 immigration act started to open the country to more immigration that a revival of small-government conservatism began. A few years after the 1986 Republican amnesty, we got the Contract with America Congress and welfare reform. Then, when border patrols were intensified in 2006 and immigration declined, power swung back to the Democrats and the government grew a lot. The pattern is suggestive.

    Also, never forget about TIEBOUT COMPETITION. A generalized regime of open borders throughout the world would allow productive people under big governments to “go Galt.”

    1. Hi Nathan,

      I will first attempt to address your criticism of the value of the question. In the familiar supply-demand curve setup, if there is a supply shock or demand shock moving one of the curves inward or outward, the first effect is to create a temporary shortfall or surplus. Then, the prices and quantities adjust to a new equilibrium. This rectifies some of the sudden quantity change but not all of it.

      In the same way, immigration creates a first, temporary shock, and the question in my mind was: With the current policy packages of the parties excluding their immigration-specific policies, what would the effect of that shock be on the parties? The parties may then choose to respond by changing their platforms, etc. moving to a new equilibrium with an equally competitive political landscape (in fact, as I wrote here, I believe something of this sort is going to happen). This would be analogous to how a sudden shortfall created by a shrinking of the supply curve during a disaster is partly offset by raising prices. In so far as this happens, it still represents a “cost” to the Republican Party as it currently stands, because change is always painful.

      Of course, you are right that this question is not the most interesting or important question. The actual policy packages and the effects of immigration on these packages are the most important aspect of the political externalities question. The reason I raised this question is simply because a lot of pundits devote a lot of attention to it, and “here’s how the Republican Party could benefit by embracing immigration” comes up a lot in the arguments of open borders advocates, including two of your recent posts (here and here). A careful reading of these posts reveals that you are not taking a position yourself on whether being pro-immigration will help or hurt the Republican Party, but the fact that you quote a lot of these people and discuss their views suggests that you consider this issue important. My main point is that if we want to talk about these things, let’s try to get our story straight and/or at least figure out what the possible stories are.

      After critiquing the value of the question, you offer some interesting possible answers. One of them is that the Republicans could engineer a polarity reversal among Hispanics (and perhaps recent immigrants from East Asia and South Asia as well?) by changing their position only on immigration, even as their other policy stances remain largely the same. This is an intriguing possibility, which would strengthen the case for (3) a lot. If you want to develop this further, I would be very interested in your thoughts.

      Your broad trends point is intriguing, but I’m not convinced. Too many important things happened in 1964-1965. Moreover, the growth of government accelerated around 1965 quite a bit, so I would suspect that that, and not immigration, was the main cause for the rise of movement conservatism. Your other historical examples also seem too broad-brush, though admittedly a blog post comment is a poor place to expect a fully fleshed out thesis. If you want to develop this thesis, it would need much more work.

  10. Yes, the long-term trends stuff is just speculative…

    OK, so yes, the partisan effects of the immigration issue are interesting, but mainly in the SHORT RUN. In the course of 2-3 election cycles, parties can change their policies and coalitions enough that how the electorate changes doesn’t really have much effect on the likelihood that a particular party will be in power. A more left- or right-leaning electorate, if that’s what greater immigration led to (there are strong arguments on both sides, though I’d probably predict, very tentatively, that immigration tilts politics to the right), wouldn’t make Democrats or Republicans (respectively) more likely to hold power, so much as cause both parties to shift right or left. “Right” and “left” are too crude, of course: really there are multiple spectra, issue-by-issue, which interact in complex ways. This is why I don’t think the “elect a new people” argument can be used the way you’re using it to predict the partisan impact of immigration. In the short run, there’s not time for immigration to change the electorate much, and in the long run, there’s plenty of time for the parties to reposition themselves.

    I think the best way to think about the short run is to use the median voter model: both parties stake out positions, the positions are pretty close to each other, they’re trying to guess the center of the electorate, but sometimes they get it wrong. Romney got it wrong: he was too far right. At least that’s my judgment, mainly based on what the consensus among professional pundits appears to be, though of course it’s consistent with my biases and anecdotes, for what little they’re worth. Romney let himself be taken hostage by the base. The Hispanic vote is the most obvious statistical indicator here– if he’d had the same share as Bush in 2004, I’m pretty sure he would have won– but it’s actually more complicated. I definitely know a lot of whites who were somewhere being put off and disgusted by Romney’s “self-deportation” position.

    I’m not claiming that the people want open borders and it’s just wicked politicians who are getting in the way, however. I think the center the parties moved close to this time was a bit too far to the right, and Romney lost net votes to Obama on this issue. Obama, the most deportationist president in history (1.5 million+), could have been outflanked on the left, but Romney missed that chance. But the political center on this issue is certainly well to the “right” of where I am!

  11. One further possibility. It might be good for the Democratic party, bad for liberals. Hispanic immigrants are likely to vote Democratic, especially after Obama’s recent action on immigration. But Hispanic immigrants are culturally conservative, so the larger the role they play in the party’s voting base, the less liberal the party is likely to be.

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