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The Argument Over Immigrants and Immigration Is (Mostly) Over

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And the Pro-Immigrant Forces Are Winning

Surely, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are onto something, the unerring pundits say. Clearly, their extremist views and unforgiving rhetoric regarding immigrants tap into a powerful vein of public sentiment.

Could it be that the support they are activating is just the tip of the iceberg? Is the public more anti-immigrant that previously believed? Does their success in the GOP primary threaten to bring forth a new era of nativist backlash?

As an activist who has been at this for a long time, let me suggest we examine this from a then vs. now perspective.

The year was 1994. Recession gripped the land. Disaffection with Washington DC was high. Political insurgents were ascendant as the Gingrich Revolution took over Congress. On the immigration front, a terrorist cell bombed the World Trade Center and killed four New Yorkers. The media was filled with images of immigrants streaming across our southern border. Californians approved Proposition 187, a measure aimed at driving undocumented immigrants from the state, by a 59% — 41% margin.

In that year, Pew Research Center formulated a question that was asked for the first, but not the last, time:

“Please tell me whether the FIRST statement or the SECOND statement comes closer to your own views: ‘Immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents’ OR ‘Immigrants today burden our country because they take our jobs, housing and healthcare.’”

The results? Almost two-thirds of Americans (63%) said immigrants were a burden; less than a third (31%) said immigrants strengthened America.

I remember those days, and not fondly. The backlash against immigrants and immigration was intense. Televised “news magazine shows” spiked populist outrage with one-sided segments, traditional outlets reported on the power of the latest, greatest GOP wedge issue, and the relatively new talk radio format found a hot-button issue that lit up its phone lines.

Fast forward to today. The year is 2016. Economic worries grip the land. Disaffection with Washington DC is high. Political insurgents are ascendant, with Trump and Cruz leading the pack. The expansive conservative media landscape is populated with immigrant-bashing loudmouths. The GOP frontrunner Trump calls undocumented immigrants from Mexico rapists and drug dealers and promises to round up 11 million people and force them out of the country (mass deportation). His main competitor Cruz says no legalization of undocumented immigrants ever, and that unrelenting enforcement, over time, will drive most of the 11 million out of the country (self-deportation).

But what of public opinion? Are these hardline views reflective of a public that, like in 1994, saw immigrants as a burden and favored a sweeping crackdown?

Not at all. Yesterday, Pew released its latest findings on the question it has been asking since 1994. The results? 57% of Americans believe that immigrants strengthen our country while 35% believe immigrants are a burden.

Get that? Over the past two decades or so, opinion regarding immigrants has shifted from 63% — 31% against to 57% — 35% for. That is a shift from negative 32% to positive 22%. It didn’t happen overnight, but it turns out the more Americans know our new immigrant neighbors, the more we think well of them.

Pew has also been asking another question of interest. It’s a policy question at the heart of today’s debate: what should the government do with undocumented immigrants living in America? Should they be able to stay legally if they meet certain requirements or should they not be allowed to stay legally?

The results? Voters favor legalization over no legalization by 74% — 25%.

As Pew summarizes:

“While a majority of Republican registered voters say immigrants are a burden on the country, a majority (57%) also say there should be a way for undocumented immigrants currently in the country to stay legally, if certain requirements are met; fewer (41%) say undocumented immigrants should not be allowed to stay in the country legally. Among Democratic voters, nearly nine-in-ten (88%) say there should be a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, while 11% say there should not be.”

Get that? By a 3–2 margin Americans think immigrants strengthen our country and by a 3–1 margin they want undocumented immigrants to be able to work and live permanently in America. Even GOP voters favor legalization by a 3–2 margin. (And if you think that somehow Pew has put a thumb on the scale, check out the recent findings from Public Religion Research Institute. Based on 42,000 interviews, they found very similar results, and some that lean even more heavily in a pro-immigrant direction.)

Yes, Trump and Cruz know their supporters. As the Pew poll captures, theirs are the most likely to say that immigrants are a burden, they should not be allowed to legalize and there should be an effort to deport them.

But what is truly remarkable is how the public opinion climate has transformed in just two decades. In the 90’s the public was generally hostile to immigrants and pro-immigrant reforms; today, the public is much more hospitable to both.

What does this mean for the immigration debate — during this election year and into the future?

It means that the legalization of undocumented immigrants in America is a matter of when, not if. It means the GOP frontrunners are pandering to a nativist base that is a minority within a minority. It means that once a GOP nominee enters a general election these extremist views will be stunningly unpopular with the broader electorate. It means that as long as the Republican Party allows the nativist tail to wag the GOP dog, they will not only lose more Latino and Asian-American voters, but others as well, such as young voters, suburban women and moderate Republicans.

It means that the Democratic nominee will lean into the issue as never before, with big hopes of historic turnout rates in affected communities, and no fear of losing voters s/he never had. It means that the Supreme Court’s June decision on whether 5 million undocumented immigrants can get deportation reprieves and work permits will test not only the merits of this highly politicized case but the integrity of the Court itself.

It means that the argument over immigrants and immigration reform is, for the most part, over. The resistance on the far right should be seen not as the makings of a new movement but as the death throes of an old one. They aren’t going down easy, but they are going down.

As conservative columnist Michael Gerson notes in today’s Washington Post:

“When Trump eventually loses — as he certainly will in the primaries, at the convention or the general election — the movement to restrict immigration will be left as a stereotype of exclusion and bigotry.”


Spanish-language version of this post available here.