Poll after poll shows that most Americans support immigration reform. Politicians, on the other hand, have been relatively silent on the issue for about five years.
Despite the public’s desire for an overhaul of our immigration system, it’s unlikely that we will witness any kind of comprehensive immigration reform in the near future. This statement is less about political cynicism than it is a careful reading of politicians’ incentives and the research on immigration policy.
Politically speaking, immigration is a particularly thorny issue. No matter which immigration policies politicians propose or support, they are almost guaranteed to upset large constituencies not only of the opposing party, but also of their own party.
This no-win political situation explains why so many politicians avoid debates about immigration. It also explains why the immigration policies we have on the books seem so contradictory, ineffective, and frustrating to people on all sides of the issue.
With many political issues, it is not too difficult to predict how Republicans and Democrats will vote. Consider economic policy. In just about any debate about stimulating the economy, we can expect Republicans to advocate for lower taxes and Democrats to propose more government spending. Or take the environment. Republicans generally favor of less environmental regulation, while Democrats tend to favor more environmental protections. On healthcare and education, we can usually expect Republicans to advocate for private solutions and Democrats for more public solutions.
Our political parties, in other words—although alike in so many ways—tend to fall somewhat right-of-center or somewhat left-of-center on most issues.
As Daniel Tichenor points out so eloquently in his recent article, immigration policy doesn’t quite work this way.
Immigration, in fact, often divides the parties—and politicians themselves.
Think about a Democrat and a Republican, each trying to decide how to craft her platform on immigration. What type of policies could we expect them to support?
The answer isn’t as easy as it seems.
Consider the Democratic politician. Since immigrants and minorities are more likely to vote for Democrats, we might expect the Democratic politician to advocate for more open immigration policies. More legal immigrants could mean more voters in the next election. Such policies may also satisfy existing supporters—e.g., legal immigrants who wish to be reunited with family members. Civil/human rights advocates, who also tend to be on the left, may also applaud more inclusive and compassionate immigration policies.
But here’s this politician’s dilemma: Democrats also claim to represent the working class, particularly in urban areas. Working class constituents may feel like they are competing with immigrants for jobs. These voters may desire less immigration. More conservative Democratic voters who live in rural or suburban areas—so-called “blue dog Democrats”—may oppose immigration because they fear that immigrants are changing the social fabric of their communities. The politician from the Democratic Party may thus alienate two very important constituencies—the urban working class and blue dog Democrats—if she pushes for more open immigration policies.
The Democratic politician, in other words, may feel like she is being pulled in two very different directions by very important voting blocs.
Now consider the Republican politician. Republicans are the party of big business. Big businesses depend on cheap, reliable labor, and thus tend to support more open immigration policies. Republicans also tend to represent rural-agricultural areas. Farm owners—whether family farms or big argi-businesses—tend to favor more immigration because most farmhands these days are immigrants. The Republican therefore has some big incentives to push for more open immigration policies.
But as much as the Republican politician may want to satisfy business owners, her support for more open immigration policies may alienate other voters. Republicans, for instance, tend to be more concerned with national security. Such voters are generally opposed to more immigration and tend to support more aggressive border enforcement measures. White Republicans in more rural areas—the same rural areas that rely so heavily on immigrant labor in agriculture—also tend to be concerned with the perceived threat immigrants pose to local cultural and identity—e.g., think: voters who support English-only initiatives.
So like the Democratic politician, the Republican politician may feel pulled in two very different directions by important groups of supporters.
As a result of strong pro- and anti-immigration factions that exist within both parties, many politicians play it safe and seek to avoid any major debate on immigration. This is particularly true at the federal level, where politicians represent more diverse constituencies.
When politicians eventually decide to tackle immigration, the result is often contradictory and ineffective policies that please everyone and no one at the same time. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) is a perfect example.
On one hand, IRCA provided legal status to about 3 million undocumented immigrants. It also contained guestworker provisions that allowed more immigrants to enter legally. On the other hand, it resulted in a major increase in border enforcement in an effort to curb undocumented immigration.
Finally, IRCA established an employer sanctions regime that threatens to fine employers who hire undocumented immigrants, but at the same time does not require employers to verify the authenticity of the labor documents workers present. The IRCA employer sanctions regime gave the impression that the government was getting tough on undocumented immigration while also sending a signal to businesses that they could continue hiring as usual.
Is comprehensive immigration reform possible? Under current political conditions, most likely not. I think it’s more likely that we’ll see step-by-step changes rather than a complete overhaul of the system. The DREAM Act would be a good place to begin.