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Unpacking Republican Opposition To Immigration Reform

In an increasingly diverse America, opposing immigration reform is a losing proposition for political candidates. So why are Republicans so reluctant to budge on the issue?
Pictured: Demonstrators in favor of immigration reform hold up a sign outside of the Freedom Tower as Sen. Marco Rubio is shown on a video screen with his family as he launches his Republican presidential campaign, Monday, April 13, 2015, in Miami. The sign written in Spanish translates to "The Dream of Rubio is our Nightmare." (Lynne Sladky/AP)closemore
In an increasingly diverse America, opposing immigration reform is a losing proposition for political candidates. So why are Republicans so reluctant to budge on the issue? Pictured: Demonstrators in favor of immigration reform hold up a sign outside of the Freedom Tower as Sen. Marco Rubio is shown on a video screen with his family as he launches his Republican presidential campaign, Monday, April 13, 2015, in Miami. The sign written in Spanish translates to "The Dream of Rubio is our Nightmare." (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Opposition to immigration reform is one of the more perplexing symptoms of Washington paralysis nowadays. Two years ago, a bill that was sponsored by four Democrats and four Republicans passed the Senate, but was ignored in the House. Democrats are eager to engage the issue, evidenced most recently by Hillary Clinton’s ringing endorsement of a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. But the GOP is stuck in vociferous opposition. Why?

Republican opposition to immigration reform clearly imperils the party’s electoral prospects, and it isn’t even popular.

The Hispanic vote in the United States—24 million now, about 40 million expected by 2030—is about 11 percent of the total electorate, and rising. Many concentrations of Hispanic voters live in red states like Texas and Florida. So the question for Republicans particularly is, why the vociferous opposition? It clearly imperils the party’s electoral prospects and isn’t even popular. Polling shows solid and consistent support for a process to grant citizenship to unauthorized immigrants. So why be so rigid about reform, including a path to citizenship, for these (mostly Mexican) workers and their families?

It’s often noted that the Republican base—the Tea Party movement in particular—is the core opposition to immigration reform and the principal advocate of militarizing the southern border and deporting “illegal aliens.” Polling suggests that about 30 percent of the U.S. public may be in this camp, most (though not all) of them Republicans. It explains why GOP presidential candidates and congressional leaders are vastly more conservative on this and other issues than are self-identified Republicans and the much-needed independent voters as a whole.

But why is the base so agitated about illegal immigration? I do not believe the opposition is mainly rooted in the two most commonly cited reasons: that the immigrants steal jobs from Americans, or that they broke the law entering the country or are overstaying their visas, and should be deported.

The jobs issue was more prominent when George W. Bush’s reform effort collapsed in 2006-07, but economists largely conclude that these immigrants do work that native Americans avoid—agricultural labor, meat processing, gardening and housekeeping, to name a few. The one category of native-born workers that may be hurt by illegal immigration are African-Americans who don’t have a high school diploma.

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The hot-button issue of legality is also misconstrued. Coming into the country without permission is a minor civil infraction, not a criminal offense. It’s called “entry without inspection.” So the frequent charge that these immigrants are criminals or “illegals” is overwrought. It’s true that the legal system treats those detained for breaking immigration rules like criminals in a deplorable detention and deportation system. But the actual infraction does not even rise to the level of misdemeanor.

There is another perspective that should be considered in the citizenship debate, namely, that those who have lived and worked and contributed to American society for several years are part of the American community, and that this fact opens a door to a normative value of “belonging.” Yale Law professor Cristina Rodríguez has argued this line persuasively, describing it as a “process of incorporation” that necessitates some level of consent from “the existing members of the body politic,” which, in turn, shapes “a reciprocal relationship between the non-citizen and the polity.”

The idea that being a solid contributor to society should earn acceptance is implied in President Obama’s executive action to defer deportation of such individuals, but it has only spurred howls of protests by the Republican base (and several lawsuits seeking to block Obama’s order). It’s precisely that kind of reaction that suggests the opposition to Hispanic immigration is grounded in cultural anxiety more than anything else.

Consider one particularly vivid case of cultural division. In Tucson, Arizona, a curriculum battle has raged for nearly a decade. The state’s political elites—two in particular, the state superintendent of schools and the attorney general, both Anglos—banned a Mexican-American course of study that has been very successful in prompting Mexican-American high schoolers to do better in their studies, finish school and go to college. The ban was imposed because the superintendent regarded the curriculum as anti-American and promoting racial friction. Students and faculty pushed back. But the running controversy illustrates a broader point.

...the opposition to Hispanic immigration is grounded in cultural anxiety more than anything else.

That is the fear many white Americans have about losing something essentially American—the ethos of hard work, playing by the rules, honoring the heroes of the American past, and speaking the language of the Declaration and the Constitution. The irony here is that Hispanic immigrants almost entirely fulfill those values. Even with the sensitive issue of language, Hispanics follow a familiar immigrant pattern of being completely fluent in the second generation.

The political mythology about Mexicans in our midst is resilient, however, and still relies on stereotypes of the “lazy” Mexican seeking welfare handouts and dropping “anchor babies.” None of this is true, but they play upon an old trope of the xenophobic: Cite Mexican “mañana” culture as the reason to exclude these immigrants, because they’re carriers of an inferior civilization that can erode American values.

It is likely that all sizable influxes of immigrants face this same hurdle, and not just in the United States. The barriers come down gradually as we see immigrants enriching our culture and our economy. For the majority of Americans, this has already happened with regard to Hispanic migrants. The question for American politics remains lively as long as the Republican base balks at the cultural change all around us.

More On Immigration From John Tirman:

John Tirman Cognoscenti contributor
John Tirman is executive director and principal research scientist at the MIT Center for International Studies.

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