New York Times (Opinion)
By Thomas B. Edsall
February 16, 2017
Why is immigration such a problem for the Democratic Party?
The issue splits traditional Democratic constituencies. It pits groups with competing material interests against each other, but it also brings those with vested psychological interests into conflict as Hispanics, African-Americans, labor and liberal advocacy groups clash over their conception of territoriality, political ownership and cultural identity.
In the fall of 2015, as the presidential campaign began to heat up, Hillary Clinton broke with the Obama administration over its ongoing deportation of undocumented immigrants.
During an appearance on Telemundo on Oct. 5, Clinton told María Celeste Arrarás that Obama’s policies were too punitive:
I think we have to go back to being a much less harsh and aggressive enforcer. We need to, of course, take care of felons and violent people. I mean, that goes without saying. But I have met too many people in our country who were upright, productive people who maybe had some, you know, minor offense. Like, you know, maybe they were — arrested for speeding or they had some kind of — you know, one incident of drunk driving, something like that 25 years ago.
Clearly, Clinton’s attack on Obama’s relatively stringent deportation policy was devised to maximize Hispanic turnout in the 2016 election.
Did the strategy work? The evidence is mixed.
A comparison of national exit polls from 2008, 2012 and 2016 shows that Hispanic turnout grew slightly, from 9 percent of the total vote in 2008 to 10 percent in 2012 to 11 percent in 2016. But any gain that might have accrued to Clinton from the increase was eliminated by the fact that her margin of victory among Latinos, 66 percent, was 5 points below Obama’s haul in 2012.
In any analysis of the 2016 vote, it is difficult to separate the issues of immigration and free trade. In an October 2016 report, Pew found that Trump voters were decisively more hostile to both free trade agreements and immigration than the general public, and much more hostile than Clinton supporters.
A detailed analysis of exit polls in four key states that helped deliver the election to Donald Trump — Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — produced interesting findings not only about Hispanics, but also African-Americans — who are less supportive of liberal immigration policies than other core Democratic constituencies — and whites. In each of these states, opposition to immigration was higher than the national average.
Take Clinton’s performance in Florida. She should have benefited from the drop in the white share of the state’s electorate from 67 percent in 2012 to 62 percent in 2016. She did not, however, because her margin among whites, 32-64, fell significantly below that of Obama, 37-61. Black turnout grew modestly from 13 percent in 2012 to 14 percent in 2016, but Clinton’s margin among African Americans, 84-8, fell well below Obama’s, 99-1.
The same pattern held for Michigan, where the white share of the electorate fell from 77 percent in 2012 to 75 percent in 2016, but Clinton lost the white vote in Michigan by 21 points, 36-57, while Obama lost it by 11 points, 44-55.
The patterns are not the same in all the Trump states. In Pennsylvania, for example, the white vote, which went 56-40 for Trump over Clinton, increased from 78 percent in 2012 to 81 percent in 2016. This boosted Trump’s statewide totals so that he carried Pennsylvania by 68,236 votes out of 5.97 million cast. An additional factor in Clinton’s defeat there was a decline in black turnout from 13 percent of the electorate in 2012 to 10 percent in 2016.
Wisconsin stands out because there the racial and ethnic makeup of the electorate remained virtually the same from 2012 to 2016. The state shifted from blue to red for one reason: the swing among whites toward Trump. Trump won 53 percent of white Wisconsin voters to Clinton’s 42 percent, an 11-point margin, compared to the 3-point spread between Mitt Romney and Obama, 51-48.
Overall, public opinion on immigration — particularly the views of those opposed to immigration — played a crucial role in the outcome of the 2016 election. Among the 13 percent of voters who identified immigration as the most important issue, Trump won, 64-33.
This data demonstrates a key element in the politics of immigration.
National polls show majorities in support of granting legal status or citizenship to undocumented immigrants. The problem for those calling for the enactment of liberal policies, however, is that immigration is a voting issue for a minority of the electorate. And among those who say immigration is their top issue, opponents outnumber supporters by nearly two to one. In this respect, immigration is similar to gun control — both mobilize opponents more than supporters.
The Obama administration, in an attempt to assuage immigration critics, had in fact acted preemptively to forestall the problems that emerged for Democrats in the 2016 election. During the Obama years, the steady rise in the number of undocumented immigrants in this country came to a halt.
Obama’s deportation policies called for aggressive enforcement against individuals who pose a clear risk to national security; serious felons, repeat offenders, or individuals with a lengthy criminal record of any kind; known gang members or other individuals who pose a clear danger to public safety; and individuals with an egregious record of immigration violations, including those with a record of illegal re-entry and those who have engaged in immigration fraud.
On the other hand, with an eye to the Hispanic vote and immigration supporters, the administration called for “prosecutorial discretion,” meaning the relaxation of enforcement, if not the ending of enforcement altogether, in the case of undocumented immigrants in the following categories:
Veterans and members of the U.S. armed forces; long-time lawful permanent residents; minors and elderly individuals; individuals present in the United States since childhood; pregnant or nursing women; victims of domestic violence, trafficking, or other serious crimes; individuals who suffer from a serious mental or physical disability; and individuals with serious health conditions.
Obama’s policies produced results — particularly the administration’s success in deporting those with serious criminal records — that served him well in the 2012 election and, in all likelihood, would ordinarily have worked for the Democratic candidate in 2016.
But in the 2016 election, Clinton was under strong pressure from immigration advocacy groups to move to a significantly more liberal stance than the position Obama had adopted.
This wasn’t just Clinton’s doing, of course. For the past fifty years, the Democratic Party has been the moving force behind rights movements generally, including, prominently, immigrant rights. Over that same time period, the Republican Party has been, and still is, the political arm of those opposed to the expansion of civil rights. This division has been a mixed blessing for both parties.
The political advantage of pro-rights positioning for the Democrats is that it has put the party at the forefront of social and cultural movements that have steadily gained public acceptance. The payoff was evident in Bill Clinton’s victories in 1992 and 1996 and in Obama’s in 2008 and 2012.
The political disadvantage emerges when a majority of voters see the Democratic Party as too far out in front of the electorate — as the proponent of new rights that do not yet have majority support. Republicans reaped the benefits of Democratic overreach in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan; the “wave” midterm elections of 1994, 2010 and 2014; and the Nov. 8 election of Donald Trump.
I asked a number of political operatives and election analysts for their views on these volatile issues. There was no consensus.
Steve Murphy, a Democratic campaign consultant, argues that the power of anti-immigrant messages will be short-lived:
Trump and other Republicans, he wrote, are simply going for a higher percentage of white votes with bigotry toward ALL people of color. America is headed toward majority minority status and these Republicans are simply betting on a white backlash. Last year they got it with a record percentage of the white vote. Will it continue to grow? History says these racist waves eventually crash on the shoals of decency.
Simon Rosenberg, president and founder of NDN (formerly the New Democratic Network), a center-left think tank in Washington, has his own argument:
Democrats will have a hard time winning this debate unless we acknowledge people’s legitimate concerns about having a functioning border and keeping people safe. Countering Trump will require us to lean into Obama’s success at halting the unauthorized flow into the country, and preventing foreign fighter terror attacks on US soil, We can be for legalizing the 11 million and more generous immigration policies while also being for a strong border and counterterrorism efforts. They aren’t mutually exclusive and shouldn’t be seen that way.
Then, addressing the 2016 campaign, Rosenberg said:
The Clinton campaign did not adequately rebut, or even really address, the xenophobic open borders/weak on terror arguments Trump made, and I think it hurt her particularly in the parts of the country where immigrants haven’t been settling in large numbers.
Nolan McCarty, a political scientist at Princeton, put it this way:
Purely in terms of politics and strategy, the Democrats have played immigration badly. They have allowed their position to be associated with open borders and sanctuary cities. They have based their opposition to the immigration restrictionists in terms of identity politics rather the economic benefits of well-managed immigration. This has caused them to be deaf to concerns that many voters have about the effects of immigration on wages and public services. While I do not think the evidence shows immigration has these alleged harms, the Democrats have to do better than dismiss all opposition to immigration as racism.
McCarty specifically disputed the argument that Clinton’s lenient position was a net plus because it was crucial in mobilizing Hispanic voters.
It was probably her underperformance in mobilizing African-Americans that hurt her most, and they are generally the group least enthusiastic about open door immigration policies.
McCarty cited an October 2016 Pew poll to show that “African-Americans support for immigration is about 15 points below Democrats overall.”
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at N.Y.U., took a similar but broader view in disagreeing with Clinton’s immigration strategy:
Political thinkers going back to Hobbes have noted that people crave safety and will give up many freedoms to a strong leader or state if it can deliver safety. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Democrats were seen as being on the side of those accused of crime – they reflexively sided with the accused, to defend their rights and fight systemic prejudice. This made them easy targets for the Republicans, who became the party of law and order under Nixon and Reagan.
Now, in Haidt’s view, adoption of a very liberal immigration stance carries substantial liabilities:
In these times of heightened fear of ISIS attacks and slow economic growth, if you are seen to favor open borders, or to not be concerned about illegal immigration, you will be an easy target for the party of law and order.
It is, however, possible that Trump’s excesses will revive support for an immigration policy somewhere between Obama’s and Clinton’s.
Adam Bonica, a political scientist at Stanford, said that in looking toward the future everything points to a strategic advantage for the Democrats in promoting immigration and the core values of decency and inclusiveness that their base stands for.
I asked Marc Farinella, a former political consultant and the executive director of the Project on Political Reform at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, about the direction of the debate going forward, and he wrote back:
Trump has left the Democrats an enormous amount of running room on this issue. From a strictly strategic perspective, all Democrats have to do to capitalize politically is sound more compassionate and stand up against excessive government oppression.” In the process, the party “could also reap additional political rewards by giving voice to Americans’ desire for fairness and concerns about cheating and safety.
Farinella added that Democrats would benefit politically by making it clear that while they oppose amnesty, they do support a path to citizenship for long-time, law-abiding and productive undocumented residents that has real work and assimilation requirements, and recognize that we do have to have efforts to identify and remove violent criminals and improve border security.
Speaking exclusively in terms of the politics of the issue, all they’ll have to do is sound reasonable, humane and compassionate.
Farinella’s analysis sounds logical, but after an election that gave the White House to Donald Trump, the argument that victory will go to the candidate who sounds “reasonable, humane and compassionate” is no longer persuasive.
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