The Tanton memo and restrictionism among US Republicans

A few months ago, I blegged for readers’ views on the relation between immigration and US politics. Here’s what I wrote:

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).

The general consensus in the comments, which saw a fair bit of participation from people who are not Open Borders bloggers and have a somewhat critical/skeptical take on open borders, was in favor of point (1). Namely, immigration is good for Democrats and bad for Republicans, and this holds mostly regardless of the parties’ respective stances on immigration. In other words, if the Republicans adopt a more pro-immigration stance, they will see some gains among immigrants, but still won’t get a majority of the immigrant vote, and the overall increase in immigrant numbers would swamp the slight increase in immigrant share (basically, a small increase in the share within the immigrant vote could be overridden by a greater increase in the immigrant vote share relative to the total vote — this is the electing a new people argument).

Nathan in particular dissented from this view. He suggested that there may be more of a case for (3) in the somewhat longer run, i.e., either party could gain from immigrant votes by marketing itself well. This would of course be ideal from the open borders perspective, as I noted above. In this post, I discuss a memo sent out by John Tanton and the extent to which it sheds light on the discussion above.

The Tanton Memo

The Cafe Con Leche Republicans website’s self-description reads: “We are Republicans who think the GOP should be more welcoming to immigrants.” The site recently published a memo by John Tanton (here’s the PDF of the memo) from 2001. For those unfamiliar with John Tanton, he is an anti-immigration activist who played an important role in helping found leading US restrictionist groups such as CIS, FAIR, and NumbersUSA. Many people on the pro-immigration side view Tanton as a mastermind responsible for much of the success of restrictionism in the United States. I suspect that people have a tendency to overplay Tanton’s role (just as critics of libertarianism overplay the influence of the Koch brothers) but his contribution to the human condition (positive or negative, depending on your perspective) is far more than that of most people. I quote the memo in full below (emphasis mine):

Roy Beck [referencing Roy Beck, CEO of NumbersUSA] and I think we have come up with an idea that can actually move the battle lines on the immigration question in our favor. While we are working on other ideas to move Democrats, this one involves using the recently released census data to show Republican members of Congress, the Administration, and the party’s leadership how massive immigration imperils their political future. The goal is to change Republicans’ perception of immigration so that when they encounter the word “immigrant,” their reaction is “Democrat.”

Here’s what the Census Bureau tells us: There are 28.4 million foreign-born persons living in the U.S. (This was before the Census Bureau recently added another 5 millionto their totals, probably mostly more illegals.) The Center for Immigration Studies breaks the numbers down this way. Of the 28.4 million, 5.5 million are illegals, and 500,000 are here on temporary visas, like the HI-9. Of the 22.4 remaining, 10.6 are already citizens. That leaves approximately 12 million legal non-citizens, about 8 million of whom, having lived here the required five years, could be naturalized. The other 4 million are still in the waiting period. And, of course, we’re adding about 1 million or more to the queue each year.

We know about the heavy tilt of recent immigrants toward the Democratic Party, both from polling booth exit surveys, and from regular surveys like the Harris Poll, enclosed as Item 1. These folks vote at least 2 to 1 for Democrats, and even up to 9 to 1 – see The Boston Globe article (Item 2). Mr. Bush got 35% of the Hispanic vote overall; i.e., Mr. Gore got about 65% – a landslide. I could send many similar articles, but will stop with a U.S. News & World Report (Item 3) confirming the saliency of this view.

Our plan is to hire a lobbyist who will carry the following message to Republicans on Capitol Hill and to business leaders: Continued massive immigration will soon cost you political control of the White House and Congress, given the current, even division of the electorate, and the massive infusion of voters about to be made to the Democratic side. We are about to replay the Democratic hegemony of 1933-53, fueled back then by the massive immigration of 1890-1924.

We have a candidate for the lobbying work in James Edwards, a former staffer for a member of the House Immigration Subcommittee, recently a lobbyist with a trade association, and the co-author of The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform. He has just joined an independent lobbying firm. He’s solidly in our camp, is very well connected in Republican circles, and is willing and able to take on this assignment. We would like to hire him half-time for a year to give this a try. Our budget for this project is $1 00,000. Mr. Edwards would pay his expenses out of his hourly fee of $1 00.00.

May we have your frank opinion of this idea? If you think it plausible, would you be willing to help support it financially?

Implications of the memo

The memo, if legitimate, suggests that Tanton sought funding to promote the position which I label as (1) in my list: immigration good for Democrats, bad for Republicans. The points I make below assume the authenticity of the memo.

  • This memo certainly indicates a definitive strategy on the part of John Tanton and others in restrictionist circles to appeal to Republicans’ political concerns.
  • Tanton wasn’t the first restrictionist to make this sort of argument. Peter Brimelow, founder of VDARE, in which Tanton hasn’t played an important founding or ongoing role, made the electing a new people argument in the pages of National Review back in 1997 (four years before the Tanton memo).
  • Judging by the mostly consistent stance that restrictionist groups have taken in support of this position over the last few years, this strategy seems to have been selected for, though Tanton’s role as an individual in selecting this strategy for all restrictionist groups is questionable.
  • Of course, just because restrictionists chose to focus their resources on the argument doesn’t mean that it is false (unlike what Cafe Con Leche Republicans seems to suggest). In contrast, the reason they selected that argument is possibly because of its element of plausibility and truth. The ideal position from the restrictionist perspective, after all, isn’t (1) but position (4) on my list: Immigration bad for whichever party adopts a more pro-immigration stance. That Tanton and other restrictionists chose to adopt (1) instead of (4) reveals that they were constrained in their narrative by the facts. More in the next point.
  • This and related evidence make it reasonably clear that restrictionists are restrictionists first and foremost, and their political party loyalties, if any, are secondary. Their choice to align with the Republican Party is a strategic choice based on a belief that they can convince the Republican Party more easily about the synergy between restrictionism and the Republican Party, not out of a principled loyalty to the Republican Party. Specific restrictionists may well be Republicans, but others may well feel more at home with the Democratic Party. Even in the memo, Tanton says in the very first para that he will be searching for parallel strategies to woo Democrats. For this reason, Republicans would be well advised, from the perspective of electoral success, to view restrictionists with a good deal of skepticism when restrictionists claim to have Republicans’ best interests at heart. It may so happen that on a particular issue, the restrictionist position coincides with what is electorally favorable to Republicans. But restrictionists have an incentive to exaggerate their case.
  • I don’t think that restrictionists are overall wrong in terms of their very basic numbers (I’m excluding restrictionists such as Ann Coulter for the purpose of this statement). Where I think Republicans may go wrong (from their own electoral success perspective) is in taking restrictionists sufficiently seriously that they don’t consider the possible gains from new, somewhat untested, pro-immigration configurations.

My co-blogger John Lee has argued (here and here) that Republicans may well benefit electorally from smartly chosen pro-migration and pro-migrant strategies, though he is fairly qualified and cautious in selling his case (for instance, John rejects the view that immigrants are likely to become majority Republican, at least in the near future). While I think John makes a fairly good case, a Republican strategist whose job is to provide Republican candidates advice to win elections would surely be advised to account for the possibility of bias in John’ assessment. Insofar as the discussion above suggests that the “immigration good for Democrats, bad for Republicans” meme was deliberately selected and exaggerated by people who are restrictionists first and Republicans second (if at all), similar caution is advised for Republican strategists listening to restrictionists.

4 thoughts on “The Tanton memo and restrictionism among US Republicans”

  1. I think the problem is for Republicans that they won’t prevent electoral losses at this point even with some restrictionist policy wins. Consider the US demographics right now. Simply with birth rates, Hispanics are having far more kids than whites (and the one Hispanic group that reliably votes Republican, Cubans, has a birth rate indistinguishable from whites) With the white vote split these minorities become the kingmakers even if immigration is halted (and it doesn’t seem clear to me that more restrictionist policies would win over a sufficient number of white Democrat votes to compensate for a potentially even more hostile minority population and potential lost white pro-immigration republican votes). More immigration might, in the short term, be even worse, but long term I think the respect problem (see Caplan: would make the loss of the minority vote to Republicans a permanent feature, which means long-term demographics will severely harm their electoral chances. If they can start out bidding Democrats on respect, then long term they can do a lot better on the minority vote (I think especially the Asian vote, Asians being the fastest growing immigrant group now and with more open immigration, given the greater difficulty of illegal immigration across the ocean, would likely expand that lead).

    Republicans may simply be screwed no matter what they do short term, but long term outbidding the democrats on respect may make immigration work for them.

    1. Follow up to this.

      Turns out that VDare has an article on this issue here:

      The key take-away from this is that the GOP gains a bigger advantage in the presidential election by focusing on the white US vote than on immigrants even under amnesty. A few things to note about this.

      The main reason the GOP doesn’t have to worry much in the presidential race is that most immigrants are settling in states that are already democrat friendly (or so heavily pro-GOP their numbers don’t matter much, ex: Texas) and therefore having little impact. This may be the case but that doesn’t remove the potential impact of immigrants on elections to the House of Representatives (if for no other reason than expanding numbers in democratic areas will require more districts to be carved out of those areas). I would like to see the potential impact of Nate Silver’s model on those elections and on the Senate. Winning the presidency may not mean as much if one or both houses of Congress becomes permanently Democratic through this shift.

      The second point I’d make is that if this is true, this actually undermines the fears embodied in the Tanton memo (though that might be more worrisome under an actual open borders regime for the GOP). If immigration even under reform fails to have a major impact then the GOP need not worry much over immigration reform. This is especially true given the low importance most voters attach to immigration ( and the high importance first generation immigrants voters tend to put on immigration issues ( Thus a GOP shift to more friendliness towards immigration is likely to lose few white voters (so long as the GOP maintains conservatism on other more important issues), but may be important in capturing some first generation immigrants which, while having little impact on presidential races, could be important in local, state, or congressional elections.

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