President Obama is announcing his executive action on immigration, and some conservatives are raging with wild claims of sinister intent. “The move will be on to grant them health care benefits and citizenship within six months of Obama’s executive action,” warned Rush Limbaugh in a Wednesday broadcast. Likewise, said Michele Bachmann, “The president has a very single-minded vision. He’s looking at new voters for 2016. … People do vote without being a citizen. It’s a wink and a nod, we all know it’s going to happen."
The most explicit version came from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a staunch opponent of immigration reform and vocal advocate of voter identification laws. Speaking on his radio show, he said, “The long-term strategy of, first of all, replacing American voters with illegal aliens, recently legalized, who then become U.S. citizens.” He continued: “There is still a decided bias in favor of bigger government, not smaller government. So maybe this strategy of replacing American voters with newly legalized aliens, if you look at it through an ethnic lens … you’ve got a locked-in vote for socialism.”
There you have it: President Obama is trying to engineer a permanent majority by legalizing new voters and giving them benefits to strengthen their link to the Democratic Party. This probably isn’t true—as far as anyone knows, neither Obama nor Democratic strategists are rubbing their hands like Birdman in anticipation of a final victory—but it does touch on something based in reality. Put simply, Latinos are a large and important part of the Democratic coalition; without their heavy support, Democrats couldn’t win Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico, and would have a hard time with places like Colorado and Virginia, where new Latino voters helped Democrats flip the states from Republican control in 2008 and 2012.
Right-wing claims aside, the president’s immigration order won’t give voting rights to unauthorized immigrants. But it could bolster Democratic standing with Latinos, Asians, and other groups with deep ties to immigrant communities. Or, if that’s too much, it could at least reverse the slide—on the eve of this year’s midterm elections, just 63 percent of Latinos leaned toward or identified with the Democratic Party, down from 70 percent in 2012.
But even this frame gives a little too much agency to politicians, who are more reactive than forward-thinking. More than anything, this is a case of Democratic politicians reacting to the activists who have pressured the White House on immigration for six years, pushing legislation and demanding new avenues for action when Congress didn’t deliver. And after a year of increasingly negative pressure, the party—and the president—has relented. The right way to look at Thursday’s executive order, in short, is as a textbook case of successful interest group pressure.
And while there are electoral consequences, I think both sides could stand a dose of reality in their predictions. Contrary to conservative fears, Republicans don’t have to worry about losing elections because of the president’s executive order. And on the other side, Democrats shouldn’t see this as a panacea for boosting Latino turnout in future contests.
It’s important to remember that Latinos (and Asians, the other group most affected by immigration policy) have relatively low rates of voter registration. Last year Gallup found that just 51 percent of Latinos and 60 percent of Asians were registered to vote, compared with 85 percent of whites and 81 percent of blacks. And while a record number of Latinos were eligible to vote in this year’s elections—25.2 million, according to the Pew Research Center—they were a small percentage of the overall voting population in key races across the country. In the nation’s closest Senate contests, for instance, Latinos were just 4.7 percent of eligible voters.
Moreover, neither Latinos nor Asians are evenly distributed across the political landscape. Latinos are concentrated in the Southwest and on the West Coast, with the largest populations in deep-red states like Texas and Arizona or deep-blue states like New Mexico and California. And similarly, Asians are largely on the West Coast. Only a few places have moderate-size Latino populations, and while it has made a difference for presidential elections—giving Democrats an edge in Nevada and a chance in North Carolina, for example—it hasn’t meant much for statewide and congressional races, where Republicans are still competitive.
Absent an immigration order that grants citizenship to unauthorized immigrants—which would prompt a real constitutional crisis—there’s no world in which conservative fears on immigration and elections come to pass.
As for Democrats, helping unauthorized immigrants may pay some dividends in the next elections. Those Latinos who weren’t thrilled with the Democratic Party—but lean toward its views—might decide to register and vote, strengthening the party wherever they live. And on the margins, that can matter a great deal; Democrats and Republicans are almost evenly matched in Florida, where a few thousand votes can sway state and federal elections. A Florida where more Latinos vote—and where they vote for Democrats—is one where the Democratic Party is set to break the state’s stalemate.
Beyond that, however, I’m not sure how much the Democrats gain. At most, the president’s immigration order might strengthen the short-term bonds among Latinos, Asians, and the Democratic Party. More significant, I think, is the Republican reaction. If the GOP reacts to the immigration order with unhinged hysteria and anti-immigrant animus—which, looking at the above quotes, to say nothing of the past, is possible—it could further estrange itself from these groups. And that, more than anything, could shift the long-term shape of our politics.
Political memory runs long, and the Latino teenager of today is the grandmother of tomorrow. If she believes the Republican Party is out to harm her and her family, how will that weigh on the views of her children and grandchildren? How will they vote? The experience of groups like Jewish Americans suggests a future in which Latinos are broadly in the American mainstream but vote for Democrats out of social solidarity and a memory of the past.
At the same time, Democrats should know that they risk a short-term backlash by acting on immigration. The white working class is hostile to new immigration, and is wary of what it means for their lives. In the 2011 Pew Political Typology survey, writes Andrew Levison in The White Working Class Today, “Hostility to immigrants is one of the two areas … where white working class Americans display the greatest degree of ‘conservatism.’ ” Levison notes the 56 percent of respondents who either strongly or somewhat agree that recent immigrants “threaten traditional American customs and values.” Indeed, when the question is framed “in starkly economic terms as a competition between immigrants and American workers over jobs and resources,” the number who strongly agree that immigrants are a “burden” because they “take our jobs, housing, and health care” is 53 percent.
Yes, that leaves a substantial plurality who are more ambivalent—or even positive—on the issue, but that’s still nothing to dismiss. Democrats already suffered one wipeout because of their weakness with the white working class. Moving on immigration could give them another, even as it helps countless immigrant families and communities.
With all of that said, the most likely electoral outcome after Obama’s immigration order is nothing. The status quo will hold, and both sides will be on the same ground as before. In other words, Republicans can stop their panic and Democrats can hold off on too much celebration.