How the Democrats Lost the Working Class on Immigration
Category: News & PoliticsVia: 1stwarrior • 4 weeks ago • 15 comments
In September 2022, we listened to a focus group run by progressive organizations. The participants, who were from different parts of the country, had voted for Joe Biden for president in 2020 but weren’t sure about the approaching midterm election. The moderator asked about migrants and about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis sending them to Martha’s Vineyard, but the responses focused more on frustration with the Biden administration’s border policy. “Trump’s border policy was not to have an influx of migrants. President Biden reversed that. There are now more than two million expected this year,” one woman said. Another added that DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott are “the first line of defense. They are not getting the support they need.”
That frustration with Biden administration policy has only grown as hundreds of thousands of recent migrants have sought shelter in New York and other big cities. A great many of them are illegal immigrants who crossed the border undetected, or who were apprehended but have been released indefinitely pending court dates under the country’s rickety asylum procedures. Even Democratic officials, including New York City’s mayor and the state’s governor, have voiced their displeasure.
America as we know it wouldn’t exist without immigrants. The country’s successive industrial upsurges, from the early 19th to the late 20th centuries, would not have been possible without immigrant labor and inventiveness. But immigration has often had a dark side that invited conflict. Divisions among immigrants and between immigrant and native workers was one reason why the U.S. failed to develop an effective labor and social democratic movement before World War I. Ironically, the restriction of immigration after 1920, based partly on bigotry, was one reason why Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democrats could unite the working class behind the New Deal during the 1930s.
From 1965 to 1995, over 20 million legal and illegal immigrants entered the U.S., three times the number that had entered in the previous 30 years. Employers used some of these workers, as they had used many immigrants from eastern and southern Europe before World War I, to drive down wages and undermine unions. Democrats, in particular labor Democrats, initially understood the drawbacks of the new immigration, and promoted legislation that would ease the tensions that were being created, particularly among working-class Americans who were once the heart of the Democratic coalition.
But over the last two decades, many Democrats, convinced they could win the support of immigrants by championing the new legal and illegal arrivals, have abandoned that effort. Instead they have largely ignored the issue of border security and visa overstays, while backing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have become part of the labor force. This stand has the support of Democratic-leaning foundations, political groups, publications and lobbies. In the Democratic primaries for the 2020 presidential election, aspiring candidates, eager to woo donors and activists, called for decriminalizing illegal immigration and granting taxpayer-financed national health insurance to undocumented immigrants.
Meanwhile Republicans, sensing an opening, have stoked the grievances of workers and small businesses who felt threatened by legal and illegal immigration. In the 2016 election, the victory of Donald Trump , who highlighted his opposition to illegal immigration, made clear that the Democrats had badly miscalculated. According to a March 2021 Gallup Poll, 60% of Americans worried “a great deal” or a “fair amount” about illegal immigration, and those who are the most concerned tend to be more likely to vote on the issue than those who are least concerned.
As expected, the results break down according to party: 91% of Republicans, 56% of independents, and 41% of Democrats are worried about illegal immigration.
Opinions also divide sharply by education. Only 46% of the college-educated are worried, compared with 64% of those who have gone to college but do not have a four-year degree, and 69% of those with only a high school education or less. These polls show that by downplaying concern about illegal immigration, Democrats have contributed to a loss of support among the working-class voters who once buoyed the party.
For an extreme example, take the congressional district that spans the small towns of western Iowa. It’s one-third blue-collar, and three-quarters of voters do not have a college degree. The area’s key meatpacking industry has been transformed since the late 20th century, as Asians and Hispanics migrated to Storm Lake, Marshalltown, and other small towns and went to work at much lower wages in the jobs that whites once had. Over the same period, the district has gone from Democratically-inclined to solidly Republican, voting almost two-to-one for Trump in 2016 and 2020. In 2002, Storm Lake’s House district elected Steve King, whose signature issue was opposition to illegal immigration.
King voiced the resentment and anger of his constituents. Responding to the argument that illegal immigrants were doing jobs that Americans won’t do, he said: “Every job in this country is being done by Americans, there’s no job they won’t do. But you need to pay them what it’s worth. And I would like to see a tighter labor supply in this country, so that a person could get out of bed, go to work, and make enough money to pay for a modest house, educate their children, and plan for retirement. It used to be that way.” When King’s opposition to illegal immigration careened into white nationalism and nativism, Republicans in the House and Senate repudiated him, and in 2020 he was defeated in the primary by a well-funded opponent, Randy Feenstra, who promised to be less strident, but who was also outspokenly opposed to illegal immigration.
Today’s partisan split on immigration represents a striking reversal from a generation ago. The 1965 legislation that opened immigration to all the peoples of the world was not supposed to lead to a dramatic increase in the numbers of immigrants. President Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach told a Senate committee, “This bill is not designed to increase or accelerate the numbers of newcomers permitted to come to America. Indeed, this measure provides for an increase of only a small fraction in permissible immigration.” But the bill included a provision allowing for family reunification, which created what came to be called “chain migration”: immigrants could bring their parents, siblings and spouses, who could then bring their own relatives. Family reunification encouraged large-scale legal migration.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed former Rep. Barbara Jordan, a Texas Democrat, to chair a commission on immigration reform, whose members were divided equally between Democrats and what would now be called moderate Republicans. Jordan was a product of the civil-rights movement, but she was also a New Deal liberal and a protégé of Lyndon Johnson. As Texas’s first Black state senator, she had succeeded in getting the state to adopt a minimum wage.
In a series of reports, the Jordan Commission recommended tightening the requirements for family reunification, reducing the annual number of immigrants and emphasizing skilled over unskilled workers. The commission urged measures to assist “Americanization,” which included the rapid acquisition of English, and took into account the strains created by illegal immigration, including education costs and wage competition with native unskilled workers. In 1996, Democrats and Republicans joined in passing the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which increased enforcement at the southern border and penalties for illegal entry.
But the mid-1990s proved to be the last gasp of bipartisanship on immigration reform. While Republicans would eventually make opposition to illegal immigration their signature issue, Democrats went in the opposite direction—supported, surprisingly, by labor unions. Traditionally, unions had seen high immigration as a threat to their members’ wages and legal protections. In the 1980s, the AFL-CIO strongly supported the idea of requiring employers to verify that workers were in the country legally, while the Chamber of Commerce and agribusiness resisted it.
Two decades later, however, the AFL-CIO was also calling for an end to employer verification. Unions had found that when they tried to organize janitors or farm workers, many of whom were illegal immigrants, employers could deter them from joining by threatening to turn them in to immigration authorities. In 2000, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union and the United Farm Workers persuaded the AFL-CIO Executive Council to press for amnesty for illegal workers. The manufacturing and construction unions were unhappy, but the SEIU was the fastest-growing union in the federation, and its views carried the day.
The AFL-CIO’s abandonment of employer verification and sanctions undercut any attempt by the Democratic Party to stop illegal immigration, and soon Democratic activists became unwilling even to debate the issue. Progressive organizations increasingly attempted to dictate the language in which the subject of immigration was discussed, and to stigmatize those who depart from the terms and outlook they promoted as racist or xenophobic. In 2010, the ACLU published an issue brief accusing those who use the term “illegal alien” of “criminalizing undocumented immigrants.”
Many Democratic leaders believed that even if downplaying or rejecting immigration enforcement cost the party white working-class votes, it would help maintain the allegiance of the huge and growing Hispanic voting bloc. In a 2013 report from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, Philip E. Woglin and Ann Garcia wrote: “Supporting real immigration reform that contains a pathway to citizenship for our nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants is the only way to maintain electoral strength in the future.”
But Democrats have learned the hard way that their stand on immigration was not the key to winning over Hispanic voters. An August 2017 poll by Morning Consult found that Hispanics did not have dramatically different views of immigration from other Americans: 52% of those who had an opinion believed that the U.S. was allowing too many low-skilled immigrants to enter, while only 18% believed there were too few. Among respondents who had an opinion, 57% thought the ability to speak English should be an important factor in deciding admission.
The results of the 2020 election once again showed that the Democrats’ acquiescence in illegal immigration failed to give them an edge among Hispanics. Trump’s views on the issue—evident as early as his June 2015 presidential announcement speech, when he characterized illegal immigrants from Mexico as drug dealers and rapists—were laced with bigotry. By Democratic calculations, his positions and rhetoric should have turned off Hispanic voters. But in 2020 he gained support among Hispanic voters in Florida, Texas and California, three states with large Hispanic populations. In Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, Trump carried an overwhelmingly Hispanic county that no Republican had won since 1920.
Some Hispanics, particularly in South Texas, backed Trump’s border policies. According to a survey by Equis Research, 61% percent of Hispanics in South Texas wanted spending on border security boosted and 58% wanted the number of asylum seekers limited—higher than the national average on both issues. In other words, significant numbers of Hispanics favored policies that they thought would reduce illegal immigration. The Democrats were out of step with the people they assumed were their loyal base.
Thirty years ago, the Democratic Party recognized that if you want to improve the lot of less-educated and low-skilled Americans already here, you have to limit the flow of low-skilled immigrants into the country. The uncontrolled legal and illegal arrival of these immigrants since 1965 has reduced opportunities for Black Americans with only a high school education, kept down the wages of first-generation immigrants, and stoked resentment in middle America. That resentment is a significant factor in working-class voters’ growing abandonment of Democratic candidates.