Democrats Used to Worry About Immigration Too. What Happened?

James Gibney, Bloomberg, November 7, 2016

While the partisan gap over immigration has been a defining feature of this campaign, its origins probably aren’t what you think. Yes, Donald Trump has stoked his core supporters in the Republican base into near-delirium with his talk of building a “great, great wall on our southern border.” But the immigration gap between the two parties owes much more to a less-remarked shift: Democrats today are far less concerned about legal and illegal immigration than they were two decades ago.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ most recent survey on public opinion and foreign policy shows just how polarized attitudes have become. Whereas two-thirds of Republicans see “large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States” as a “critical threat,” only a quarter of Democrats feel the same way.

When the Chicago Council began asking that question in 1998, Democrats saw large-scale immigration no differently from Republicans. After 2002, that started to change, as the percentage of Democratic respondents expressing concern has steadily declined.

The same trend applies to views on illegal immigration, with Democrats showing markedly less concern over the last two decades. Separate Pew Research Center data show a similar evolution.

By comparison, Republicans’ views have fluctuated within a relatively narrow band. {snip}

But what accounts for the shift by Democrats?

Part of the explanation is the party’s demographics. In 1992, 76 percent of all Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters were non-Hispanic whites; now that figure is just 57 percent. In contrast, Republican voters are still 86 percent white, down just slightly from 93 percent in 1992. Republicans have also become, on average, older and less educated–two other characteristics that track with greater concern about immigration.

{snip} It could also be that immigration’s salience as a wedge issue between Democrats and Republicans prompts Democrats of all backgrounds to be less concerned about immigration.

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But of course, there’s another reason: The Democratic Party recognizes that immigration advances its political fortunes. {snip}

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Recent studies of presidential elections suggest that naturalized Latino and Asian-American citizens vote Democratic by a two-to-one margin. And there’s a big pool waiting to be tapped: Almost 9 million of America’s 13 million legal permanent residents are eligible to become citizens. Even before this election, they were naturalizing at the fastest rate in three decades. And thanks in part to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, applications to become citizens in the second quarter of 2016 were 32 percent higher than the same period last year.

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