Restrictionists in the United States often harp on one key aspect of the US immigration policy disconnect — specifically the part about how the immigration policies supported by US political leaders fall short of the preferences expressed by citizens for reduced immigraton. To open borders advocates, the difference may seem like a rounding error. But restrictionists are often quite exercised about the matter, and have come up with a variety of explanations for this, including ideological blindness and stupidity as well as self-interest accusations.
At a basic level, the complaint checks out: the US citizenry have preferred lower immigration levels than their political representatives. Setting aside whether this is a valid argument against open borders, it’s still interesting to ask why there is such a disconnect. My general theory is that when politicians support an unpopular policy consistently, the probable reason is that they know that the medium-to-long-term consequences of supporting the unpopular policy more than compensate for the short term damage. A politician might choose to turn a blind eye to illegal immigration because he/she thinks that the increased economic growth that would result from that, or the goodwill generated with immigrant citizens and their sympathizers, more than offset the unpopularity of the policies. Some of these benefits to the politicians are inherently zero-sum (more votes to one politician means less for the other) and don’t really constitute “benefits” of immigration in a global sense. Other benefits, such as greater economic growth, if true, do constitute benefits of immigration that the politicians may be able to see more clearly than their bosses at the voting booth (i.e., the citizenry).
Jason Riley, in his book Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders, provides a slightly different but compatible theory. His central claim is that, yes, a lot of US citizens desire immigration reduction, but it’s not very important for them. So, it rarely, if ever, becomes an issue that would actually make a voter switch his or her vote. Further, politicians who sound overly obsessed with immigration may put off voters who agree with them but suspect they are engaging in grandstanding to avoid discussing the more important issues, such as the state of the economy. This isn’t to say that running on an anti-immigrant platform cannot be successful, but rather, that people’s stated preferences about immigration may paint a misleading picture about their desire to make it a decisive factor when voting.
Here’s Riley’s diagnosis:
As a voting issue, immigration restrictionism is political pyrite. It’s often likened to economic protectionism because both tend to poll better than they perform on Election Day. Americans may rail against illegal aliens in telephone surveys, but election results have shown time and again that it’s seldom the issue that decides someone’s vote. The lesson for the GOP is that hostility to immigrants is not a political winner. That’s been the lesson in the past, and given demographic trends, as well as a voting public that is more racially and ethnically tolerant than at any time in U.S. history, it’s likely to be the lesson in the future. Unfortunately, it’s not a lesson that some conservatives are in danger of learning anytime soon. In an interview in early 2007, President Bush told me he was concerned that internal Republican disagreement over immigration was sending the wrong message to voters. “I don’t want our party to be viewed as anti-anybody,” said Bush. “If you get labeled as anti-people, you can’t win elections. ” When I asked what was driving the dispute, he first replied: “I think conservatives tend to want to enforce the law,” and then added, “yet the system that has sprung up as a result of [current] law is inhumane in many ways.” Elaborating, the president said: “People want to be here so badly to put food on the table for their families that they’re willing to get into the bottoms of eighteen-wheelers, for example. There’s a whole hotel industry providing safe houses on both sides of the border. There’s an interior transportation industry. There’s document forgery taking place. There’s a whole infrastructure that has sprung up as a result of a system that’s not working.” Aside from that, said Bush, “this is an emotional issue,” and he worried that some conservatives had let their emotions get the better of them. “It’s interesting,” said Bush. “There have been periods in our history where nativism has had a strong appeal. Sometimes nativism, isolationism, and protectionism all run hand in hand. We got to be careful about that in the United States. The 1920s was a period of high tariff, high tax, no immigration. And the lesson of the 1920s ought to be a reminder of what is possible for future presidents.” In 2007, immigration restrictionism on the right, if anything, intensified, particularly on talk radio. Despite losing the House and Senate in the previous year, President Bush and Karl Rove thought passing immigration reform and broadening the GOP base might still be possible. A bipartisan Senate bill cosponsored in 2006 by Ted Kennedy and John McCain provided a viable framework for comprehensive reform that would include more border enforcement, a guest-worker program, and a path to citizenship for illegals already in the country. The immigration polls varied widely based on how questions were phrased. But any survey that presented the option of allowing illegal workers to remain here—and earn legal status by meeting certain requirements—garnered an overwhelmingly positive response from Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike. Typical was a June 2007 Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, which reported that 75 percent of Republicans found it “not realistic” to require undocumented immigrants in the United States to return home to seek legal status, and 81 percent said it was unrealistic to seek their deportation.
Riley, Jason L. (2008-05-15). Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders (pp. 173-176). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.