We can argue about whether America has an immigration problem. But it seems pretty clear that Democrats have an immigration problem, one they’ll have to fix if they want to oppose Trump effectively, much less regain control of the government.
Josh Barro, a senior editor at Business Insider, laid out at length exactly what that problem is. Briefly: The party has relied on opposing Trump’s more outrageously exaggerated claims about the criminality and all-around character flaws of immigrants. That’s fine, as far as it goes – but as November showed, it doesn’t go far enough.
The core problem is that Democrats didn’t really make an affirmative argument for an overhaul to U.S. immigration policy that might appeal to voters. Instead, they talked a lot about what great people immigrants are, and how much they benefit from migration. Unfortunately, the clearest group of beneficiaries – people who want to migrate, but haven’t yet gotten a green card – can’t vote.
It’s easy to explain how immigrants benefit from an open door. Explanations of how the rest of us benefit tend to rely on the trivial or on abstract economic arguments that most people don’t find particularly intuitive or convincing. Those arguments look even more suspicious because they are generally made by the one group that visibly does benefit from a lot of low-skilled immigration, which provides the nannies, lawn care and food services that high-skilled professionals rely on to allow them to work longer hours.
There is one other group of people who strongly benefit, of course: recent migrants who have relatives they would like to join them. The most recent U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that that’s perhaps 6 percent of eligible voters. More importantly, we have to account for the fact that naturalized citizens vote at significantly lower rates than the native-born.
Democrats may have large numbers of people polling vaguely in favor of high immigration levels, but relatively low levels of voter intensity for their position. You can see how these gaps work when you consider what happened on gun control in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre: nothing. Strong majorities polled in favor of tighter restrictions. This support was broad but shallow: When it came to the ballot box, most people were more likely to vote on other issues. Gun owners, on the other hand, were apt to make this one of their top issues and vote accordingly.
Immigration may have a similar asymmetry. Distrust of strangers is a universal human phenomenon, tapping into some pretty deep evolutionary instincts. Once those instincts are aroused, you need very powerful emotional arguments as to why it’s worth taking the risk.
Democrats seem to appreciate that this is a problem, but instead of solving it, they mostly speak in vague generalities and to avoid concrete questions: What percentage of our society should be foreign-born? How should we choose the people we allow to migrate? Instead of formulating a clear policy, they relied on institutional inertia and lax enforcement to swell the foreign-born population to nearly 15 percent of the country. And Republicans, whose donor class likes generous immigration rules, were happy to go along.
That was fine as long as those groups were in charge of the status quo. Once Trump took over, however, that became infeasible. Trump, and anti-immigration Republicans in Congress, are going to be pushing specific policies to step up enforcement against people who are here illegally, and otherwise curtail legal immigration.
Successfully opposing these moves will require more than saying “He called Mexicans rapists!” Democrats are going to have to put forward a specific vision of their own for how many people should be allowed into this country, and what kind. And they will need to back up that vision with emotionally salient arguments that convince American voters immigration is as good for them as it is for the newcomers to our shore.
Megan McArdle is a columnist for Bloomberg View.
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