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White BacklashImmigration, Race, and American Politics$

Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan L. Hajnal

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780691164434

Published to Princeton Scholarship Online: October 2017

DOI: 10.23943/princeton/9780691164434.001.0001

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A Theory of Immigration Backlash Politics

A Theory of Immigration Backlash Politics

(p.25) Chapter 1 A Theory of Immigration Backlash Politics
White Backlash

Marisa Abrajano

Zoltan L. Hajnal

Princeton University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces a theory that explains how immigration could lead to a broad white backlash that transforms the basic political leaning of much of white America. As anxiety about immigration has grown, white partisanship and politics have become increasingly affected by this issue, with more and more white Americans espousing a less generous, more indignant politics that seeks to punish immigrants who violate U.S. norms, and strives to cut off services and other public goods that could benefit them. The chapter describes a theory of immigration politics and examines how immigration could be reshaping the politics of white America. It argues that far from the country moving away from the use of race/ethnicity as a dividing line, immigration is actually leading to greater divisions and tensions—at least in the political sphere.

Keywords:   immigration, white backlash, white partisanship, white Americans, immigrants, immigration politics, race, ethnicity

The United States has a checkered history with race. At times racial discrimination has been a core element of the country’s social and institutional fabric. The ownership of millions of African American slaves represents just the darkest stain on the nation’s historical record. There are certainly many others. The annexation of the US west from Mexico, maltreatment of tens of thousands of Chinese laborers in the late nineteenth century, internment of thousands of Japanese during World War II, and strict color lines enforced and encoded in the Jim Crow south all demonstrate the ability of Americans to accept as well as actively engage in grossly unequal practices. Too many times in the past, the United States has displayed a woeful indifference to the rights and interests of those it views as different or somehow less deserving.1

At the same time, the US public seems firmly committed to the ideals of equality for all.2 From the founders onward, Americans have expressed strong support for the inalienable rights of human beings. When questioned, the vast majority of Americans clearly and emphatically advocate for basic, universal human rights.3 It therefore is not surprising that the United States has at times been at the forefront of movements to expand the definition and practice of equal rights.

Although these two traditions—one of racial hierarchy and another of inalienable rights—have obviously collided throughout US (p.26) history, most would agree that the balance of power has slowly though inexorably shifted over time toward greater equality.4 The path toward more expansive human rights has been anything but even, and there have been notable periods of regression, yet across the long arc of the nation’s history, the United States has moved toward greater adherence to universal rights in both rhetoric and practice.5

For many, the current wave of immigration represents an opportunity to move even further on the path toward equality.6 From this perspective, the arrival in large numbers of a motivated, energetic, and racially diverse population should serve to demonstrate the folly of racial ascription as well as institutional inequality. And at least at first glance, there are compelling signs of immigration’s positive impact on the country in general and race relations in particular. With increased immigration has come rapidly rising rates of interracial marriage along with newer, more complex, and much less rigid racial categories.7 From the relative simplicity and rigidity of the “one-drop” rule that governed the black-white divide for much of US history, we have progressed to an era where the census records mixed racial identities and the fastest-growing group, Latinos, can choose to identify with more than one racial group.

Paralleling all this is an impressive record of assimilation for present-day immigrants. Despite some immigrants, especially those from Latin America, starting on a weaker economic and educational footing than previous waves, today’s immigrants have by and large been able to make substantial intergenerational strides on almost every conceivable measure of economic and social incorporation.8 By the third generation in the United States, newcomers have come close to matching or even exceeding the average American on English-language ability, educational attainment, patriotism, and other core US values.9 The rapid incorporation of these diverse newcomers is a strong sign of an increasingly open society and may even be an indication that the nation has reached a point where racial considerations are largely immaterial. Many have begun to ask if we are, in fact, approaching a postracial society.10

(p.27) In this chapter, we argue that far from the country moving away from the use of race/ethnicity as a dividing line, immigration is actually leading to greater divisions and tensions—at least in the political sphere. As the immigrant population has grown, more and more Americans have become aware of the demographic, economic, and cultural changes taking place. For many that awareness has spurred real anxiety. The fear is driven in part by the size of the immigrant population itself, but more substantially by an immigrant threat narrative perpetuated by the media and politicians alike. As the number of immigrants coming to this country has grown over the past half century, so too has attention to this narrative. Images of immigrants clandestinely crossing the US-Mexico border, committing crimes, and accessing public services heighten anxiety among those who may already be concerned about the nation’s direction. Once aroused, that anxiety seeks a political home. When the two major parties chart divergent courses on the question of immigration, with one often bemoaning the social, cultural, and economic costs associated with immigrants, and the other frequently acknowledging the benefits that immigration can provide, the political choice for Americans becomes sharp. For those who fear the changes wrought by immigration, the Republican Party provides a natural home.

The end result, we contend, is a rightward shift for a large segment of white America. As anxiety about immigration has grown, white partisanship and politics have become increasingly affected by this issue, with more and more white Americans espousing a less generous, more indignant politics that seeks to punish immigrants who violate US norms, and strives to cut off services and other public goods that could benefit them. In what follows, we outline our theory of immigration politics and detail how immigration could be reshaping the politics of white America.

Why Immigration Matters in US Politics

Immigration is undoubtedly one of the most important forces shaping the nation today. But what role does it play in the political life of this nation? Few clear answers to this question have emerged. We know much about the actions and allegiances of immigrants themselves.11 The forty million foreign-born residents of the United States have (p.28) undoubtedly become important actors in electoral contests across the nation.12 The immigrant voice in US politics is no longer a hope. It is very much a reality. Nevertheless, that immigrant vote still represents a small fraction of the nation’s active electorate. Foreign-born residents still represent fewer than 5 percent of the voters in this country.13 If immigration is going to have a deeper impact on the politics of the nation, it will be with the larger, native-born population.

And what of the broader US public? Is the existence of large-scale immigration changing it in any notable way? Is the nation’s dramatic demographic transformation accompanied by an equally consequential political transformation for those already here? Or put more pointedly, is it impacting the core political decisions of individual Americans, and affecting the winners and losers in US democracy?

On these latter kinds of questions, we have remarkably few answers. As we will see, political scientists and other observers of US politics have done a great deal to try to assess how we feel about immigrants and immigration.14 They have in various ways explored the determinants of immigration attitudes.15 But somewhat surprisingly, we have done much less to look systematically at the consequences of our attitudes about immigration. Do our feelings about immigration ultimately influence how we feel about policies, parties, and candidates? Does immigration affect who we are politically?

A Theory of Immigration Politics

We contend that it does. In the following pages, we offer a theory that explains how large-scale immigration can result in core political shifts in the white population. We highlight several different aspects of immigration that we think make it a ripe candidate for generating real change in white policy views, partisanship, and vote choice. The key features of immigration are its scope (few Americans can ignore it), the widespread presence of an immigrant threat narrative that generates anxiety, the infusion of immigration into diverse policy debates ranging from welfare to health, and the growing divide between (p.29) Republican and Democratic elites on the issue. Immigration stirs anxiety, and the Republican Party offers a home to that unease. We then contrast this theory of immigration politics with alternate accounts that predict little to no political backlash against immigration.

Remarkable Demographic Change

The first feature of immigration that sets it apart from most other issues is its magnitude. Americans are limited political animals in many ways. They tend not to follow the minute details of the day’s political debates. And they frequently show little interest in the candidates and campaigns waged for their benefit. Their knowledge of basic political facts is often sorely inadequate.16 But immigration is no ephemeral phenomenon. Unlike many of the other political developments that US politicians debate, immigration is massive, local, and long term. We believe that one of the reasons immigration is so central in the politics of individual white Americans is its almost-overwhelming magnitude. Every year for over five decades, upward of a million immigrants have arrived on this nation’s shores.17 Immigrants and their children now represent one in four Americans.18 The vast demographic change that has occurred and continues to do so is impossible for white Americans to miss.

What makes the change more remarkable and, for some, more menacing is its diversity. Immigrants are distinct racially and ethnically from the native population. Immigration has moved us from a primarily black-and-white world in which whites dominated numerically, economically, politically, and in almost every other sphere to a much more racially complex one. Latinos now significantly outnumber African Americans in the United States. Asian Americans are by some measures the faster-growing immigrant group in the country. And perhaps most important, whites are not far from losing their majority status.

All this demographic and racial change is, of course, accompanied by the extensive presence of Latinos, Asians, and other immigrants in the mass media. There are also the frequent interactions with nonnative speakers in the nation’s streets, workplaces, and neighborhoods as well as marked, visible changes in the types of businesses springing up (p.30) in towns and cities across the continent. Individual whites Americans may not be aware of many crucial developments around the world but are surely cognizant of the immense change that immigration is exacting on the nation. It would be surprising if immigration were not playing a more central role in the minds of white Americans.

The Immigrant Threat Narrative

The second key element of our account is an immigrant threat narrative that we believe, as noted earlier, fuels individual fears and insecurities about Latinos and immigrants. This wide-ranging and often-repeated narrative casts immigrants and especially Latinos in a negative light, and highlights a host of pernicious fiscal, social, and cultural consequences to immigration.19 Within the economic sphere, there are claims that immigrants, particularly those in the country without legal status, are overly reliant on welfare, use considerable public resources in areas like health and education, and fail to pay their share of taxes.20 The overall fiscal story, according to the narrative, is one of substantial economic loss for the nation’s taxpayers.21 Other versions of the narrative are more focused on the possibility that immigration will bring with it crime and disorder.22 The narrative typically also underscores the cultural dissimilarity of the Latino immigrant population and likelihood that continued immigration will lead to the demise of the traditional US way of life.23 Samuel Huntington is perhaps the best-known critic of Latino immigrants’ assimilation process, but many others have lamented everything from the growing use of Spanish in US schools and public spaces to a declining national identity.24

This threat narrative is also fed by talk of the sleeping “Latino giant.” Observers are quick to point out dramatic growth in the size of the Latino electorate—64 percent between 2000 and 2008—and equally striking increases in the number of Latino elected officials—from almost none to over five thousand nationwide in the past forty years.25 Massive immigrants’ rights protests supply fuel to suspicions (p.31) about an increasingly strident immigrant population. All these add a distinctly political dimension to the threat.

There is, of course, a vigorous debate about the validity of the overall narrative. Many dispute each of the narrative’s empirical claims. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that that this threat narrative has been absorbed by a large cross section of white Americans, many of who now express significant concerns about the costs of immigration. Extensive polling data reveal a depth of worry about immigrants and the immigrant population among a substantial share of white America.26 In a range of different surveys, almost half of all Americans believe that immigrants are a “burden” or feel that immigrants “hurt the country.”27 A third to a half of the nation wants to see a decrease in the current levels of immigration, and anywhere from a third to a half thinks “immigration is a bad thing for this country.”28

Moreover, there are large segments of the population that have bought in to each of the different elements of the threat narrative. Some 61 percent of Americans are concerned that undocumented immigrants are “putting an unfair burden on U.S. schools, hospitals, and government services.” Another 87 percent are concerned or quite concerned that immigrants “making low wages might make U.S. employers less willing to pay American workers a decent wage.”29 Fully 58 percent feel that immigrants do not learn English quickly enough, and about one-third of Americans believe that Latino immigrants significantly increase crime.30

Attitudes toward undocumented immigrants are even more severe. When given the choice between “primarily moving in the direction of integrating illegal immigrants into American society or in the direction of stricter enforcement against illegal immigration,” almost 70 percent choose stricter enforcement.31 Two-thirds say that undocumented immigrants should not be eligible for social services.32 Polls also show that well over 60 percent of Americans approve of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070, commonly referred to as the “show me your papers” law, since it enables law enforcement officials to stop anyone who they suspect is in this country without legal status. A clear majority (p.32) would like to see a similar law requiring police to verify legal status in their state.33 And a similarly large majority supports “building a fence along 700 miles of the border with Mexico.”34 What makes these attitudes about undocumented immigration all the more alarming is that a majority of Americans (61 percent) believe that most current immigrants are here illegally.35 In short, immigration has not gone unnoticed. And for many Americans, its consequences are anything but positive.36

Critically, for those with concerns about immigrants, immigration is not just a minor nuisance. Few view immigration as the nation’s single most important problem. Gallup polls over the years reveal that less than 10 percent of Americans usually rate immigration as the most significant problem facing the country. Yet that does not mean that immigration is a tertiary concern. In almost every survey that has asked about “illegal immigration” in the last decade, an overwhelming majority of Americans—anywhere from 80 to 95 percent—view it as a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem.37 Put simply, there is a real depth to US anxiety about immigration.

None of this is to say that the United States or even white America is wholly united on immigration. Perhaps the fairest assessment of perspectives on immigration is that the public is decidedly split. Many hold positive views of immigrants, and are supportive of policies that would increase immigration and expand the rights as well as interests of immigrants.38 Depending on the nature of the question and exact wording used, surveys can suggest reasonably widespread support for different aspects of immigration. Roughly as many Americans hold that “immigrants strengthen the United States with their hard work (p.33) and talents” as view immigrants as harming the nation.39 Similar proportions of people see immigrants on balance as an “economic benefit” versus an “economic burden.”40 Americans appear to be especially supportive of earned legalization. In most surveys, a clear majority favors measures that would allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the country as temporary workers or eventually citizens.41 Over all, about one-third of Americans say they are “sympathetic” to the plight of undocumented immigrants. An equal number feel that “America should always welcome immigrants.”42

All these data indicate that immigration could represent an important dividing line in US politics. If feelings on immigration—both negative and positive—are strong enough, immigration could propel many of the core political choices that Americans make.

It is also worth noting that current patterns in US public opinion closely mirror many historical episodes of nativist reactions to growing immigrant populations. The United States is in both reality and folklore a nation of immigrants, but when the immigrants have arrived in large numbers or from distinct shores, they have often sparked widespread fear and concern among the public. Indeed, the history of the nation could be told through a series of challenging immigrant-nativist confrontations.43 The rising tide of German and French migrants at the end of the eighteenth century sparked one of the first large-scale nativist movements. But it was just one of many. It was followed by numerous episodes of anti-Irish discrimination in the 1850s, a populist backlash against Chinese immigrants in the 1880s, prevalent anti-southern and eastern European sentiment in the early twentieth century, and a long history of animosity toward Mexicans dating back to the Mexican-American War.44 World War II generated similarly widespread anti-immigrant concern and the internment of over a hundred thousand Japanese Americans. One could also include current-day US anxiety about and discrimination against Arab Americans in this lengthy list of nativist movements.

The larger point is that contemporary concerns about Latinos and other immigrants are not new. They represent just one example of a much larger phenomenon. If Americans have so often rallied in large (p.34) numbers against immigrants in the past, then there is a real possibility that we should expect the same kind of anti-immigrant mobilization today when the number of immigrants and the racial distinctiveness of those immigrants are at or near historical highs.

Immigration Permeates Other Issues

We already know that attitudes toward immigrants strongly shape preferences on immigration policy itself. Diverse studies have shown that whether individual Americans favor more or less immigration is closely linked to how they think about immigrants, and in particular how positively or negatively they view the Latino community. Experimental work by Brader and his colleagues clearly demonstrates that Latino images trigger opposition to immigration.45 And several other scholars have shown that feelings toward Latinos and undocumented immigrants are one of the most important determinants of immigration policy positions.46 Finally, several different studies have found that proximity to larger immigrant populations and especially larger Latino communities creates heightened opposition toward immigration.47

But do attitudes about immigrants and/or the Latino population affect views across a wider array of policy questions? Can anxiety about immigration help drive broader political outcomes? Scholars have not yet made this kind of connection, but we believe that views on immigration are likely to influence a broad range of policies.

The third critical development in our theory of immigration politics is the coupling of immigration with a range of policy debates and policy prescriptions. We contend that immigration has broad consequences for policy because concerns about immigrants are being increasingly infused into a diverse array of ostensibly nonracial- or nonimmigration-related policy areas.

This spillover of immigration into a variety of policy areas is driven in part by demographic change itself.48 As the immigrant population (p.35) grows, immigrants almost naturally become an increasingly central focus of policy considerations. Yet we also believe that the media and political elites play a large role; both sets of actors have increasingly put immigration at the heart of a range of different policy debates. Images of Latinos and visuals of undocumented Latino immigrants are regularly inserted into articles and discussions about everything from health care to terrorism. When Americans now talk about welfare, crime, education, and a number of other important policy arenas, they often also speak about immigrants or some aspect of immigration.

Welfare is perhaps the most obvious case of a policy area colored by immigration, and in particular, the images and presumed actions of Latino immigrants. Welfare reform since the mid-1990s has been permeated with images of Latinos.49 California’s Proposition 187 is one of the leading examples, but it is certainly not the only one. Shortly after 1996, Congress, with the strong backing of President Bill Clinton, passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which limited federal public services to legal immigrants. Since 2005, most other states have sought to reduce immigrant access to welfare.50

Moreover, slightly less than 70 percent of whites view Latinos as especially prone to be on welfare.51 Work by Martin Gilens found no clear link between attitudes toward Latinos and policy views on welfare in the 1990s, although more recent work by Cybelle Fox as well as Rodney Hero and Robert Preuhs suggests a tightening relationship.52 Given that more Americans believe that immigrants come “primarily to use government services and welfare benefits” as opposed to “primarily for jobs,” it would not be surprising to discover that attitudes on immigration are now shaping white’s preferred welfare policy prescriptions.53

Latinos, immigrants, and crime is another readily apparent script. When Latinos are in the news, criminality is a common theme. Fully 66 percent of network news coverage of Latinos incorporates crime, terrorism, or unauthorized immigration.54 Likewise, as we will show in chapter 5, when the news media focuses specifically on immigration, much of the coverage is negative in its tone.55 The end result is a clear (p.36) link between crime and immigration among the public. Despite the fact that only about a quarter of the foreign-born population are undocumented, most Americans believe that the majority of immigrants are here without legal status.56 These perceptions have influenced the stereotypes associated with Latinos. A majority of white Americans view Latinos as being particularly prone to violence.57 Implicit attitude tests also now show a clear connection between Latinos and being undocumented.58

More recently, concerns about undocumented immigration have also spilled over into the issue of health care. Recall the events that transpired during President Obama’s September 2009 speech to Congress regarding his proposed health care plan. When Obama stated that the Democratic plans would not include coverage for undocumented immigrants, Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina interrupted the president’s speech and shouted, “You lie!” This outburst and the overall spotlight on undocumented immigrants have made Latinos one of the main “target” groups of this policy. After much of the debate on the plan revolved around whether or not the Democratic reform package would cover undocumented immigrants, a Pew Research Center poll found that 66 percent of the opposition reported that they were against the plan because it might cover undocumented immigrants.59

Deliberations about the merits of different educational reforms as well as access to public education itself have also become more and more focused on Latinos. Proposition 187 began efforts to limit immigrants’ access to public education. More recently, other states like Alabama, which enacted the Beason-Hammon Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act in 2011, have attempted to restrict undocumented immigrants from attending public schools.60 The debate continues today in a different form with arguments for and against the Dream Act.

(p.37) Similarly, images of the immigrant population at least occasionally undergird debates about broader issues like jobs and taxes as well.61 High rates of unemployment and low wages can—and often are—linked to the flow of low-skilled, undocumented immigrants coming across the border.62 Given that large segments of the US population believe that immigrants are hurting wages and job prospects, it seems logical that many of the proposed economic solutions would be influenced by immigration considerations. The story on taxes is analogous.63 Worries about unauthorized immigrants not paying taxes and the long-term negative fiscal consequences of the United States’ large immigrant population may already be shaping the willingness of white Americans to tax themselves to provide basic services.64

For those concerned about immigration and the growing Latino population, there are obvious policy implications in each of these areas. Anti-immigrant sentiment in every case should lead directly to more conservative policy preferences. Perceptions that immigrants are disproportionately using public welfare coupled with the sense that immigrants make up a larger and larger share of the welfare-receiving population could provide a strong motivation for retrenchment. The story on crime is similar. If white immigrants believe that immigrants are prone to crime and that a growing subset of the criminal population is immigrant based, then the solution is more punitive measures. More broadly, if most Americans think that immigrants are using services without paying taxes, this may lead them to be less generous toward such services. This logic may go so far as to lead to disinvestment in core areas like education and health care. The overall story is that anxiety along with resentment generated by the immigrant population should lead to less generous and more punitive policy choices.

If attitudes on immigration were tied to a range of policy debates, it would not be the first time. Past research has demonstrated a strong link between attitudes toward minority groups and nonracial policies.65 In particular, there is evidence that individual policy preferences on welfare have been shaped by attitudes toward blacks.66 The racialization of welfare was no accident. For almost a half century, political rhetoric and media coverage of welfare often highlighted this racial (p.38) connection. Content analysis of media coverage has confirmed the relationship.67 Clearly, these racialized images have had an impact on the public. In experimental research by Franklin Gilliam Jr., whites’ views toward blacks became more negative and their opposition to welfare increased when they were exposed to a news story featuring a black welfare recipient as opposed to a one.68 The end result is that attitudes toward blacks have been found to be a primary factor driving support or opposition to welfare reform.69

The connection between crime and the African American population is just as apparent, with news coverage disproportionately featuring African Americans and white resentment toward blacks driving criminal policy preferences.70 Here again, experimental studies demonstrate a clear link between media coverage, racial attitudes, and policy preferences.71 More limited research has also shown an association between attitudes toward blacks and tax policy as well as a host of other ostensibly nonracial policy areas.72 In short, a range of policies in the United States has often been—and may continue to be—racially coded.

Given the growing prominence of immigrants and Latinos in the news and many of these different policy debates, we should expect to see an increasingly close connection between attitudes about immigrants, on one side, and white Americans’ policy preferences, on the other. The implication of all this is that if we want to understand the full extent of the impact of immigration on US politics, we need to consider the effects of immigration not just on how individuals think about immigration policy itself but also on how they think about the broader array of policies that are at times implicitly linked to the issue of immigration.73

None of this is to say that immigration is the primary motivation whenever white Americans consider these different policy areas. (p.39) Indeed, immigration is unlikely to be the main driving force in any of the policy arenas. The coupling of immigration with each of these different policy debates nonetheless should have consequences. For many individual Americans, concerns about immigration may be strong enough to lead to a small but recognizable impact on their policy views. If these different assertions are correct, existing studies are far too narrow and have greatly underestimated the influence of immigration on US politics.

Increasingly Clear Partisan Choices

The last critical development for our immigration backlash theory is the coupling of the immigrant threat with increasingly apparent partisan choices. Driving this development is the growing policy gap between Democratic and Republican leaders on the immigration issue, in part fueled by intense partisan polarization among politicians and the public.74 Although elites in both parties express a variety of views on immigration, the political entrepreneurs who have been most vocal about the immigrant threat narrative have generally come from the Republican side.75 Republican leaders like Mike Huckabee and Tom Tancredo along with conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh have repeatedly highlighted the ills of undocumented immigration, and have urged for a range of reforms to push current immigrants out of the country and limit new immigration.76 Even a politician like Mitt Romney who represents the more moderate faction of the party adopted an anti-immigrant platform that included self-deportation and opposition to the Dream Act in his 2012 bid for president. Some have gone so far as to say that the only things Republicans have offered Latino and Asian voters are “fear and hostility.”77 On the other hand, most Democratic leaders have either expressed support for a limited range of immigrants’ rights or avoided the issue altogether.

These increasingly divergent policy stances are borne out by votes in Congress. As Gary Miller and Norman Schofield have demonstrated, there was reasonably strong Republican support for immigrant’s (p.40) rights during the Reagan era and little noticeable partisan division on immigration-related legislation as late as 1990. But since that time, it is clear that “the parties have switched their positions on immigration.”78 James Gimpel and James Edwards actually trace these divisions back to the mid-1980s.79 Votes in Congress reveal an increasingly stark contrast, with Republican legislators repeatedly supporting tougher laws against immigrants, and Democrats favoring more admission and greater immigrants’ rights.80 Tom Wong finds that across all bills and amendments that Congress voted on between 2006 and 2012, Republican house and senate members favored restrictive policies 98.4 percent of the time, while Democrats supported those measures only 66.4 percent of the time.81 On any number of different immigration-related issues including erecting a border fence, English as the official language, amnesty, government workers reporting undocumented immigrants, and anchor babies, current Republican leadership has largely aligned itself on the opposite side of the Democratic Party.

The same pattern of partisan divergence is evident at the state level. All the infamous anti-immigrant state measures have been initiated and/or endorsed by state Republican leaders and largely opposed by Democrats. In Arizona, for example, no Democrat in the legislature supported the controversial immigrant enforcement bill, SB 1070, while all but one Republican voted for it.82 Battle lines in California over Proposition 187 were similarly partisan in their nature, with Republican governor Pete Wilson one of the primary advocates of the ”Save Our State” initiative and Democratic governor Gray Davis challenging the measure in court. There is also compelling evidence that Democratic and Republican leaders at the local level are just as sharply divided on immigration.83

These divergent party stances on immigration are borne out by interest group ratings. Interest groups universally rate Democratic members of Congress as distinctly liberal on immigration and Republican members as strongly conservative. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), for example, rates current Democratic house members on average as a ten out of a hundred on its immigration legislation scale, with a hundred denoting the most restrictive position (p.41) on immigration. By contrast, Republican house members average ninety-nine. Significantly, FAIR’s estimate of the partisan divide on immigration has grown sharply over time. Its ratings show little partisan divide on immigration as late as 1996, when Democrats averaged a score of forty-four on immigration and Republicans received an average score of fifty-two. But by the early 2000s, FAIR’s ratings by party sharply diverge.

A similarly anti-immigrant group, NumbersUSA, gave President Obama a failing grade on immigration while offering passing grades for all the 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls. The National Latino Congreso sees the same large partisan gap, but as a decidedly proimmigrant interest group, it gave Democrats high grades—an average score of 81 percent—while labeling Republican legislators as extraordinarily poor on immigration—an average rating of 7 percent.

Especially in the current era of extreme partisan polarization, we contend that the increasing distance between Democratic and Republican leaders on matters of immigration could have real consequences for individual partisan identities. When Republican leaders criticize immigrants, condemn their actions, and bemoan the costs to the United States, and Democratic leaders either ignore immigration or offer lukewarm support for the plight of immigrants, they present individual white Americans with a compelling partisan logic. Anyone who is anxious about immigration and the growing population of Latinos has a strong incentive to favor the Republican Party. This divide over immigration is so great that in the current congressional session, the 113th Congress, little hope exists for the passage of any sort of comprehensive immigration reform, despite the strong urging of President Obama and a variety of interest groups to do so.

Party leaders are not, however, the only actors involved in this process. We believe that immigrants and Latinos are also contributing to the sorting of white Americans into pro- and anti-immigrant parties. The pro-Democratic tendencies of the growing Latino population have dramatically altered the racial group imagery of the Democratic Party. Latinos, the largest and most visible immigrant group as well as the one most often associated with the immigrant threat narrative, have overwhelmingly chosen to favor the Democratic camp. Latino Democratic identifiers outnumber Latino Republican identifiers by more than two to one.84 When Latinos vote in congressional elections, the Democrat-to-Republican ratio is almost four to one. And in 2008 and 2012, over two-thirds of Latinos supported Obama. The end result


A Theory of Immigration Backlash Politics

Figure 1.1 The Changing Racial Composition of the Democratic and Republican Parties: Nonwhite Share of the Presidential Vote by Party and Year

Sources: ANES 2010; National Election Pool Exit Polls.

is a dramatic reconfiguration of the racial group imagery associated with each party.

That racial reconfiguration is illustrated in figure 1.1, which details the size of the nonwhite segment of the Democratic and Republican presidential votes over time. Until the early 1960s, neither party was closely aligned with a racial minority group. Both parties received at least 90 percent of their votes from white voters. Since that time, though, the share of Democratic support coming from racial and ethnic minorities has risen dramatically, while the share of Republican support from nonwhites has been relatively flat. In 2012, almost half of all Democratic voters (45 percent) were racial/ethnic minorities. By contrast, a little less than 10 percent of Republican supporters were nonwhite. It would be hard not to notice that the Democratic Party gains a great deal of its support from racial/ethnic minorities while the Republican Party does not.

Latino elected officials have helped to reinforce this change in the racial group imagery associated with each party. Today, well over two-thirds of the Latinos in Congress are on the Democratic side. Some 83 percent of Latino state legislators are Democrats.85 Overall, about 90 percent of Latino elected officials in partisan office across the nation (p.43) identify as Democrats.86 The end result is that the party representatives look very different. Fully one-third of the Democratic members of the US House of Representatives are nonwhite, while less than 4 percent of Republican house members are nonwhite. If these newcomers are a threat, they are one that generally sides with the Democrats.

Immigration and the Intractability of Party Identification

But can immigration really influence partisan preferences? Party identification is, after all, one of the most stable and enduring political attachments.87 For many of us, partisan psychological attachments begin in childhood and persist for all of our lives.88

There are reasons to suspect that feelings on immigration could affect partisan views, however. First, although party identification is often durable, it can and does shift.89 Aggregate shifts in partisanship are well known and well documented.90 Long-term panel data also demonstrate widespread and unambiguous individual-level changes in partisan attachments.91 Indeed, diverse scholars contend that for many Americans, party identification is a standing decision that incorporates issue positions and other factors.92 This Downsian perspective has garnered increasing support over time and is one of the two main theoretical accounts of individual partisanship.93

Second, if any issue can provoke change in partisan attachment, it may well be immigration. Historically, we have seen how immigration can alter the positions of the parties as well as their supporters.94 Scholars of this Downsian perspective, moreover, do not assert that all issues are equally likely to sway partisanship. They instead suggest that partisanship is more likely to change when the issue is relatively simple or symbolic as well as stirs deep feelings.95 Immigration conforms on both counts.

(p.44) Immigration is by most accounts a relatively easy or symbolic issue. Studies suggest that attitudes toward immigrants are at their base linked to deep, enduring attitudes like ethnocentrism and prejudice.96 How we think about Latinos, for instance, says a lot about our policy views on immigration.97 In this sense, immigration may be similar to racial issues. Attitudes toward immigrants and immigration may be deeply held and stable enough to sway partisan considerations.98

The salience of immigration certainly ebbs and flows, but it seems clear that substantial segments of the US population see it as an important issue. Polls over the last decade indicate that close to 90 percent of Americans view undocumented immigration as a serious problem, with roughly 60 percent calling it a “very serious” problem. What’s more, when asked explicitly if positions on immigration would sway their partisan choices, most Americans say that immigration would win out. Fully 70 percent of Americans say they would likely vote against a political party or candidate that “took a position on immigration that you disagreed with . . . even if you agreed with that party or candidate on most other issues.”99

But what if party identification is not really driven by issue positions and instead is a more deep-seated psychological attachment? Could partisanship still change in the face of large-scale immigration? We contend that even in this case, there is reason to expect substantial shifts in partisanship. Even those who consider party identification to be a stable and enduring political attachment admit that it can be altered under particular circumstances. One of those circumstances is a change in the group images associated with each party. Even Donald Green and his colleagues who write convincingly about the durability of party identification note that major shifts in partisanship have occurred over time as the group images associated with each party have changed.100 Indeed, part of the seeming permanence of partisan attachments stems from the fact that those group images rarely change. Yet with immigration and growing Latino support of the Democratic Party, there is little doubt that party images have changed in recent decades. A party that once served and was (p.45) supported by lower-class white interests increasingly became a party supported by the black community, and since the 1990s has increasingly become a party supported by Latinos and other immigrant groups. In other words, what it means to be a Democrat has changed. This is precisely the kind of change that could alter enduring partisan attachments. Again, there is a precedent in US racial politics. Enormous, racially motivated shifts in partisanship have taken place in the past. That defection of whites from the Democratic Party is from another time and revolves around a different group—African Americans. Nevertheless, it is analogous to the situation today. Several studies assert that the movement of whites to the Republican Party in the 1970s and 1980s was a direct response to the civil rights movement, the increased political participation of African Americans, and growing black support of the Democratic Party.101 As blacks joined the Democratic Party in large numbers, and as the Democratic and Republican parties diverged on the main racial policy questions of the day, white identification with the Democratic Party—especially in the South—sharply declined.102 According to this view, whites’ sentiments about blacks helped Republicans dominate national elections.103 Gimpel and Edwards also assert that the movement of whites to the Republican Party can be explained with the passage of the Hart-Cellars Act of 1965, which resulted in a large influx of new immigrants that largely benefited the Democratic Party.104

If the growing strength and increasing demands of one racial minority group has triggered broad political reactions along with a widespread white backlash in the past, there is at least a possibility that the growing immigrant population could spark a similar reaction today. Given that Latinos have replaced blacks as the largest ethnic/racial minority population, it is at least plausible that Latinos and other immigrant groups have become more central in the political thinking as well as partisan choices of white America.

(p.46) Immigration and the Vote

Although party identification is generally considered to be the principal driving force in US politics, democracy at its heart is about votes and elections. Who wins office and who loses? If immigration is having a fundamental impact on the political arena, we should also see evidence of it in the vote. For all the same reasons that we believe immigration is impacting partisan identity, we expect attitudes on immigration to shape the partisan vote. As rates of immigration increase, anxiety about immigration expands, and the Democratic and Republican brands increasingly differ on immigration, it makes more sense for individual voters to use immigration to help shape their electoral choices. Strong concerns about immigration and two starkly different choices on immigration will, we contend, convince many white voters to favor Republican candidates.

Mechanisms: How Does Immigration Impact Individual Americans?

We have suggested why large-scale immigration should shift white policy preferences and partisan affinities toward the right. But we have not yet described how that process might work. How do individual Americans see and experience immigration, and how do they learn about the Democratic and Republican parties’ divergent stances on immigration? We have presented a broad theory, but we have not yet detailed a causal mechanism.

What, then, is the mechanism through which the phenomenon of immigration seeps into the political consciousness of individual Americans? Different individuals are likely to “experience” immigration in varying ways, yet we believe that two mechanisms are critical in shaping individual experiences and reactions. One is direct and geographically based. That is, living in areas where immigration is more pronounced and the visible effects of immigration are more widespread should spark stronger reactions than residing in areas with little to no immigration. The other mechanism is indirect, based on what sorts of information individuals are exposed to. Namely, the media in many cases functions as the main purveyor of information for the US public.105 What they see and learn from the news media is likely to significantly shape their opinions about immigration along with their political reactions to newcomers to the United States.

(p.47) These two mechanisms are far from the only ways in which immigration could impact the public. Partisan elites, as we have already mentioned, can play a pivotal role in driving this process. There are all sorts of important and interesting strategic political decisions that these elites regularly make on the issue of immigration that we will largely ignore in this book. Likewise, interest groups and in particular organizations that strongly favor or oppose immigration in the United States can influence individual Americans through a range of activities. But we believe that geographic context and media coverage of immigration represent two of the key mechanisms helping to shift the political preferences of many white Americans to the right.

The Geography of Immigration

Individual Americans’ experiences with immigration are decidedly uneven. Some live in contexts that have been overwhelmingly transformed by large numbers of newcomers, while others live in areas that have been largely untouched by the shifting demographics of immigration. We believe variation in immigrant settlement patterns has real consequences for how white Americans think about immigration and how they react politically.

Our story is essentially one of racial threat. We contend that proximity to sizable and growing immigrant populations raises the stakes of immigration. With larger numbers comes the potential for more competition for scarce resources like housing, education, welfare, jobs, and any number of other public services. Greater visibility of the immigrant population can also, in and of itself, spark stereotypes and concerns. The underlying idea is that a larger out-group increases feelings of threat—either because that threat is real or simply because it is perceived.

There is, in fact, growing evidence to suggest that this kind of racial threat mechanism is in place. A range of contextual studies has shown that concerns about immigrants and opposition to immigration both increase as the size of the local immigrant population grows.106 More research nevertheless needs to be conducted before we can firmly connect an immigrant contextual threat to white political behavior. For one, the results, to this point, are not always consistent. Some studies have found no relationship between immigrant context and views.107 Others have even demonstrated a positive relationship.108 (p.48) For another, existing studies of immigrant or Latino context are too narrow in scope. Not one of these contextual studies has looked at the impact of immigrant context on partisanship and other core political decisions.109

One other outstanding question is whether threat is driven primarily by the size of the out-group or rate at which the out-group is growing. Do white Americans feel most threatened when faced with a large number of Latinos or immigrants, or do they experience greater anxiety when confronted with a relatively small but rapidly expanding immigrant population? All the media discussion about “new immigrant destinations” where relatively small though rapidly expanding immigrant communities are sparking heated reactions suggest that the rate of growth is a critical factor.110 A spate of recent anti-immigrant legislation in new destination states like South Carolina and Alabama reinforces this view. Moreover, several convincing academic studies have discovered a strong relationship between Latino population growth and white attitudes as well as actions.111 But the passage of similarly stringent anti-immigrant measures in high-density Latino states like California and Arizona suggests that overall numbers may matter just as much or more. Again, as we have just noted, research that focuses on group size has frequently found evidence of a robust racial threat effect. Moving forward, we will both recognize and incorporate the distinction between group size and group growth rate in our analysis.

If in the end it turns out that we do find a broad political reaction to immigrant context, it will mirror past white reactions to the black population. Researchers including Key and Olzak have demonstrated in different ways that many whites are threatened by more sizeable black populations and have reacted negatively when the local black population has grown or sought greater empowerment.112 Larger black populations have been associated with more resentment of blacks, violence against blacks, support for racist candidates, greater opposition to policies that might benefit blacks, and increased support for the white candidates and Republican Party.113 If current reactions to immigrants parallel these racialized patterns of the past, whites’ political (p.49) behavior should be directly shaped by the immigrant context in which they live.

The News Media and Its Framing of Immigration

Although we believe that there is a direct link between demographic change and white political views, we contend that whites learn about immigration from other sources as well. Namely, we maintain that the news media is a critical source of information on immigration. How whites view immigration, whether they think it is a prevalent problem, and ultimately whether they accept an immigrant threat narrative are all, in our opinion, likely to be shaped by the new media.

We argue that the Latino or immigrant threat narrative has come to dominate media coverage of immigration, largely because of profit-based incentives.114 The overreliance on this specific frame generates new fears about the presence of immigrants, or activates and heightens existing concerns. Ultimately, by informing individuals about the largely negative attributes of immigration as well as exposing the public to a biased perspective on this highly complex and multifaceted issue, the news media may be able to heighten concerns about immigration enough to alter core partisan attachments.

In testing these two mechanisms, we have two main goals. First and foremost, we simply want to learn more about the mechanism through which immigration works to affect US politics. How do larger national trends reach and influence individuals with respect to immigration? In addition, these tests will help us confirm the causal link between immigration and white political behavior. If we can demonstrate a link between proximity to immigrants and media coverage, on the one hand, and white views and political choices, on the other, we have yet more evidence that immigration matters in the US political arena.

The Underlying Causes of White Anxiety about Immigration

One question we have not answered is why so many white Americans feel threatened by immigration in the first place. The anxiety surrounding immigration is surprising given that most empirical studies indicate that native-born Americans should not feel any great sense of threat. The best social science data suggest that the net impact of (p.50) immigration is generally a positive one for most Americans.115 With few exceptions, the documented costs of immigration are relatively small.116 Given the overall empirical reality of immigration, few Americans should feel threatened.

Why, then, do so many Americans appear to have real concerns about immigration? One can claim—as we do—that negative media portrayals spur anxiety, politicians and other political entrepreneurs can add to the combustible mix by maligning immigrants and making them scapegoats during periods of economic downturn, and interest groups can further stoke fears among the public. Yet that still begs the question of why so many white Americans are susceptible to the message. If all or almost all the empirical evidence is to the contrary, why does the immigrant threat narrative resonate so broadly?

This is not a question that we directly address in this book. It is, however, a subject that has dominated much of the political science literature on immigration. It is also an area of research that has attracted widespread debate. Most assert that cultural and racial considerations are behind whites’ responses. Views on immigration have been linked to ethnocentrism, social dominance and authoritarian personality, nationalism, and racial prejudice.117 Indeed, there is absolutely no doubt that attitudes about immigrants are correlated with a range of different measures of cultural and racial views as well as various personality types. Whether there is a causal connection between each of these measures and attitudes on immigration is not as clear.

There is also no shortage of other hypotheses about what drives opinions concerning immigrants. Many other scholars point in particular to economic considerations. In one variation, those who are most directly in economic competition for immigrants should be the ones (p.51) most opposed to immigration.118 In another version, unease about immigration should reach its highest levels during trying economic times. These economic models have sometimes garnered significant empirical support. At the aggregate level, studies have linked economic conditions to immigration attitudes.119 Others have shown that opinions about immigration are intricately connected to personal economic considerations. Unskilled, native-born Americans whose jobs and wages are most in jeopardy tend to be the most strongly opposed to immigration.120 Likewise, taxes and public spending considerations can play a role. Hostility to immigration is especially pronounced among Americans whose taxes are most likely to be affected by immigration—high-income earners who live in states with relatively expansive social welfare benefits and large numbers of immigrants are particularly hostile to immigration.121 At the same time, other empirical studies raise some doubt about these kinds of economic arguments.122 More recent experimental studies strongly suggest that economic considerations play little part in structuring attitudes on immigration.123

In the end, we are largely agnostic about what it is that drives attitudes concerning immigrants. Each of these different theories about the underlying causes is likely to be at least partly true for some Americans. Fortunately, the story that we are presenting in this book is consistent with any of the economic, racial or cultural threat mechanisms. If white Americans feel threatened by immigration—regardless of why—it could have political consequences.

At the same time, it is important to note that our story is not simply a retelling of these earlier accounts. Even after controlling for the various factors discussed above, we find that attitudes about immigrants have a robust, direct effect on a range of political choices. Thus, there is something significant about immigration itself that matters to white Americans when they make basic political decisions.

Who Is the Threat?

Another question we have yet to address is exactly who or what whites are threatened by? Are their concerns focused on the undocumented, (p.52) or do their fears extend to the entire immigration population? Is fear concentrated on a single national origin group like Mexican Americans who represent a large share of immigrants and hail from a neighboring country with a large, porous border? Or alternatively, are concerns much broader? Do the children of immigrants and even those who appear to be immigrants spur similar anxiety? On a related point, are worries mostly centered on the growing Latino population or does the discontent that Americans feel about immigration also stem from the rapidly expanding Asian American population?

In theory, white Americans could make crucial distinctions between each of these different immigrant groups. Categories like undocumented immigrant, documented immigrant, Mexican American, and Latino all represent distinct populations with often widely divergent structural positions in the US economy and US life. In reality, we believe that most white Americans who are concerned about immigration tend not to make important distinctions between these different segments of the Latino/immigrant population. In the practice and rhetoric of US politics, these concepts frequently blur together. In surveys, Americans tend to reserve their most negative sentiments for so-called illegal immigrants, but when asked about immigrants as a whole, Mexican Americans, or even Latinos, the answers tend not to differ all that much. Indeed, most Americans, as we have already noted, incorrectly assume that most immigrants are undocumented, and their perceptions about the size of the undocumented population are strikingly similar to their estimates of the size of the Latino population.124 What we think about undocumented immigrants seems intricately interconnected with what we think about immigrants and the broader Latino population.

All this is corroborated by a closer look at the attitudes of white Americans. In table 1.1, we shed some light on the degree of association between white attitudes toward these different categories. We present correlation coefficients in the table between different measures that together, address potentially important distinctions between undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants, and Latinos. All the data are from the 2008 ANES, a standard tool for analysis of US politics that we will return to time and again in the ensuing chapters. Four measures capture views on undocumented immigration: How warmly/coldly do you feel about undocumented immigrants as a group? How important is it to reduce undocumented immigration? Should we


Table 1.1 Attitudes toward Different Elements of Immigration: Correlation Coefficients

Illegal Immigration

Feelings toward

Is a Serious Problem

Allow to Work

Path to Citizenship

Illegal Immigration

   Feelings toward

   A Serious Problem


   Allow to Work



   Path to Citizenship




Legal Immigration

   Preferred Level





Views on Latinos

   Feelings toward Latinos





Note: All correlations are significant at p < 0.001.

Source: ANES 2008.

allow undocumented immigrants to become citizens? And do you favor allowing undocumented immigrants to work in the United States before they go back to their home country? Next we include one question that gauges views on illegal immigration: Should immigration levels be increased, decreased, or kept at the same level? Finally, we incorporate feelings toward Latinos using a standard feeling thermometer that asks about feelings toward this group.

Theoretically, Americans could make important distinctions between these three different kinds of groups, but the results in table 1.1 indicate that they do not. Answers to the six questions are highly correlated (the average inter-item correlation is 0.31), and no measure stands out as being particularly divergent from the others.125 Moreover, as we will see in the analysis that follows, it will generally not matter which question or category we use to measure attitudes. Whether we employ a question on alleged illegal immigrants, one on immigrants, or another that assesses views of the Latino population, our results will be strikingly similar. When Americans talk about undocumented immigrants, Latinos, or immigrants in general, the images in their heads are likely to be the same. In line with Brader and his colleagues, Perez, and others, we believe that white Americans’ attitudes about immigration (p.54) are highly racialized and concerns about immigration are largely focused on the Latino population.126

The one distinction that we think Americans do make is also a racial one. We believe that they see Latinos and Asian Americans in different ways. Moving forward, we maintain that Latinos and Asian Americans should be examined separately because the two groups hold quite different positions in the US racial hierarchy, and therefore are perceived in distinct ways by white Americans.127 In terms of socioeconomic status, Asian Americans tend to fall at the top of the racial hierarchy while Latinos are disproportionately likely to fall near the bottom. Latinos are two or three times more likely than Asian Americans to be classified as living at or below the poverty line. The median Latino household income is only about half the median Asian American household income—the figures were roughly sixty thousand and thirty thousand dollars, respectively, in 2005. The differences in educational outcomes are just as stark. While only about 20 percent of Latinos currently graduate from college, almost 60 percent of Asian Americans do.

Stereotypes of the two pan-ethnic groups are also radically different. As Lawrence Bobo has documented, almost 70 percent of whites rate Latinos as especially welfare prone and almost half see them as less intelligent than whites on average.128 By contrast, less than 15 percent of whites hold the same negative stereotypes of Asian Americans. Instead, when whites stereotype Asian Americans, it is often for being economically successful. Almost half of all whites believe that Asian Americans are especially industrious. Only 5 percent of whites feel the same way about Latinos.129 These distinct stereotypes are also consistent with survey findings on intergroup attitudes. Most whites say they feel closer to Asian Americans than they do to Latinos.130 In the same poll, 92 percent of whites said they get along with Asians while only 67 percent felt the same way about Latinos.

It is not immediately clear what these two patterns imply in terms of a threat to the white community. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that whites will react to the two immigrant groups in a similar fashion. If (p.55) concerns about welfare, redistribution, and criminality dominate white views, then reactions to the Latino population could be much tougher.131 By contrast, Asian Americans, as a kind of model minority, could represent less of a threat and more of a potential partner.132 Which of the two pan-ethnic groups represents more a threat will have to await more direct testing. But given the distinct structural locations of the two groups, both in terms of socioeconomics as well as the structure of racial hierarchy in the United States, we believe that it is critical to examine the impact of Latinos and Asian Americans separately.

At this point, however, our expectations are based largely on our beliefs and not on data. Before we can conclude that white Americans tend to make few distinctions between different aspects of immigration, but do view Latinos and Asian Americans differently, we will have to undertake a series of empirical tests of these different versions of the immigrant threat narrative. In light of these potentially muddled categories, we will empirically test several measures of Latino, immigrant, and Asian perspectives to try to get a clearer sense of just who it is that white Americans are reacting to.

Alternative Theories

We have presented one theory of immigrant politics—one that we hope is compelling. But there are certainly alternative ways of conceptualizing immigration’s impact on US politics. Many astute observers of US life and politics might suspect that immigration has a different effect on the attitudes of individual Americans.

One real possibility is that growth in the immigrant population could lead to more and more positive views of immigrants along with a greater willingness to support policies and political parties that might serve the interests of immigrants. After all, as we have already mentioned, almost all the empirical studies show that immigrants as a whole are successfully integrating into US society. Over time and across the generations, immigrants and their children tend to climb up the economic ladder, attain higher educational outcomes, and generally come closer and closer to catching up to the average American.133

(p.56) If immigrants and their children are working hard, succeeding, and otherwise following the basic tenets of the US creed, then logically one might expect that increased contact with immigrants would effectively teach individual Americans that they have little to fear from immigration. Greater immigration could ultimately demonstrate to individual Americans that immigration could be a vital resource for the nation. This kind of contact hypothesis has been put forward for relations with African Americans and has received at least some empirical validation.134 Systematic testing of learning from direct contact with immigrants is rare.135 Yet there are at least tangential signs that many Americans could be learning positive lessons from immigration. As we have already highlighted, surveys show that large segments of the native population recognize the benefits of immigration and appreciate many of the qualities that immigrants bring to this country. These Americans may be eager to support policies that would open the border, or help immigrants succeed and assimilate in US society.

In this vein, any Republican strategy of targeting immigrants might backfire, and could actually enhance the willingness of individual white Americans to support more liberal, Democratic, and proimmigrant policies. If the bulk of the population is sympathetic to immigrants and views the positions of the Republican Party as an unfair attack on immigrants, then we might see a growing segment of the white population defecting to the Democratic Party. Indeed, there is evidence that just a shift occurred on a small scale in California in response to the Republican Party’s support of Proposition 187.136

Still others might contend that immigration is simply not important enough in the minds of individual Americans to generate the kinds of broad political consequences that we have envisioned in our theory of immigrant politics. Two classes of data might support this latter perspective. First, the US public has rarely viewed immigration as the (p.57) nation’s most significant problem. Rarely have more than 10 percent of Americans cited immigration as the most pressing concern facing the country.137 Furthermore, over the last few decades the nation has faced any number of other issues that have captured the lion’s share of the public’s attention. Many scholars would argue that war, economic woes, emerging social issues, and a number of other worries have dominated recent political debates, and therefore probably have dominated the decision-making calculus of individual Americans.138 Finally, some scholars would contend that even if immigration were on par with these other issues, it still would have little impact on core partisan decisions. Regardless of how compelling our theoretical account may or may not have been, there are those who believe that party identification is largely impervious to change.139 Concerns about immigration, however widespread, will simply not be enough to substantially alter deep-seated psychological attachments to a political party formed early in life. If anything, attitudes on immigration will fall in line with preexisting partisan attachments.140

Immigration and White Backlash: What Do We Know?

We have outlined what we think is a compelling theory of immigration and its impact on the politics of white America. But as we just noted, our story is not the only possible version of reality and could be wrong. Which of these different accounts is accurate? One obvious place to look for answers is in the existing literature. What do scholars have to say about the broad consequences of immigration for US politics?

The answer is precious little. Although we believe that there are valid reasons to suspect that immigration has wide-ranging consequences for the politics of white America, we have to admit that few of these effects have been documented. Almost all the literature on immigration and US political behavior focuses on one of two subjects. Either scholars concentrate on immigrants themselves and their political choices, or they seek to understand underlying attitudes about immigration. They rarely aim to understand the implications of our views on immigration.

(p.58) In the first case, there is ample evidence that immigrants themselves have had an impact on US politics. Numerous studies have illustrated the growing strength of the minority vote and ability of Latinos, the largest immigrant group in the nation, to sway electoral outcomes.141 Other research has highlighted different partisan patterns among the immigrant population, and in particular the increasing attachment of immigrants and their offspring to the Democratic Party.142 These are certainly important developments in the course of US political history. As we have mentioned, though, immigrants are only a small fraction of the population.

What about research on whites and immigration? Here the overwhelming focus has been on understanding and explaining what drives our attitudes toward immigrants, and what motivates our preferences on a range of polices related to immigration.143 Why is it that we do or do not like immigrants? What leads us to favor or oppose policies that would open or close the border?

These various studies can be incredibly helpful, but the end result is an important gap in our understanding of immigration and its impact on US politics. Scholars have helped us to develop an understanding of the underlying causes of attitudes on immigration and our views toward Latinos, but they have done much less to assess the broader consequences of immigrant related views. We know little about how views of immigrants shape core political affiliations and basic voting decisions. To date, there is scant evidence that the partisan affiliations or voting decisions of individual white Americans strongly reflect their views on immigration or the Latino population.144

The existing research that examines partisan trends has generally overlooked the role of immigration and race.145 The few studies that have done so exclusively center on the black-white divide, without any recognition of the nation’s burgeoning immigrant population.146 No study that we know of has demonstrated a connection between immigration and the white vote in national contests, or revealed a direct test (p.59) between immigration and white partisanship across the nation.147 Despite immigration’s tremendous impact on the demographics of the nation along with the large-scale social, economic, and racial change that has ensued, there is little direct evidence that immigration has had an enduring impact on the basic political decisions of the white majority. Comparative studies in Europe have identified clear links between the size of the national immigrant population and support for right-wing parties.148 But the same has not been done in the United States. Ultimately, compelling evidence is missing that immigration is a core element of US politics.

This all means that more research needs to be done. There is, we would argue, every reason to expect that immigration will have a broad partisan impact on the politics of white America. Yet there is little to no available study of that impact. In the pages that follow, we seek to provide systematic, empirical evidence that assesses the broader political consequences of immigration. (p.60)


(5) Ibid.

(7) Today, 15 percent of all new marriages are interracial or interethnic—a figure that seems well-nigh impossible given the sharp dividing lines that only recently governed the US south (Passel, Wang and Taylor 2010).

(13) An analysis of the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey indicates that only 3.6 percent of the votes cast in the 2010 general election were by the foreign born.

(17) We know, though, that the distribution of immigrants across the United States is uneven. For a more thorough discussion of these geographic variations and its impact on partisanship, see chapter 4.

(19) Chavez 2008; Santa Ana 2004.

(21) Ibid.

(26) Unless otherwise indicated, all polling figures are compiled from Polling Report 2014.

(27) Pew Research Center poll in 2013 and Fox News poll 2013, cited in Polling Report 2014.

(28) Pew Research Center poll in 2013 and Gallup poll in 2012, cited in Polling Report 2014.

(29) USA Today poll in 2010, cited in Polling Report 2014.

(31) Quinnipiac survey in 2010, cited in Polling Report 2014.

(34) Fox News survey in 2011, cited in Polling Report 2014.

(35) The best estimates indicate that only about a quarter of immigrants are undocumented (Pew Research Center 2006).

(36) It is worth noting that all these figures understate white fears and concerns about immigration. National polling data, of course, include large numbers of Latino and Asian American respondents who are decidedly more proimmigrant on every one of the questions that we highlight here. Typically, white views are 5 to 10 percent more anti-immigrant than these national figures suggest.

(37) CBS News surveys in 2010–14, cited in Polling Report 2014.

(38) Another almost equally large segment of the US public appears to be ambivalent about immigration. For example, roughly one-quarter of the population feels unsure whether immigrants hurt or help the country (Fox News 2010 survey, cited in Polling Report 2014). A third think we should “welcome some” immigrants but not all (New York Times 2010 poll, cited in Polling Report 2014). Likewise, 42 percent of Americans feel that we should pursue both increased border security and a pathway to citizenship equally vigorously (Pew Research Center 2012, cited in Polling Report 2014). For this segment of the population, in short, there appears to be real mix of admiration and concern.

(40) Pew Research Center 2008 survey, cited in Polling Report 2014.

(42) New York Times 2010 survey, cited in Polling Report 2014. In addition, the most recent polls have shown a substantial uptick in support for immigration.

(47) Newman 2013; Dunaway, Branton, and Abrajano 2010; Ayers and Hofstetter 2008; Hero and Preuhs 2006; Stein, Post, and Rinden 2000; Burns and Gimpel 2000; Hood and Morris 1998. See also Scheve and Slaughter 2001; Tolbert and Hero 2001. The same relationship between the size of the immigrant population and increased opposition to immigration has been found repeatedly at the cross-national level (Citrin and Sides 2008; Lahav 2004; McLaren 2003; Quillian 1995). Similarly, when Americans vote directly on immigration policy through the initiative process, greater racial diversity is often associated with support for measures that target minorities (Campbell, Wong, and Citrin 2006; Tolbert, Lowenstein, and Donovan 1998; but see Hood and Morris 2000; Citrin, Reingold, and Green 1990).

(49) Chavez 2008; Fox 2004.

(53) Reason-Rupe 2013 survey, cited in Polling Report 2014.

(55) Not only has the crime issue risen to the forefront of the national immigration debate, but it has also made its way to the subnational level via a range of state and local initiatives, such as those in Arizona and other ordinances targeting unauthorized immigrants.

(60) While the law does not prohibit undocumented youths from enrolling in school, immediately after its passage, the percentage of Latino students enrolled in Alabama schools dropped by 5 percent. The courts have at least temporarily blocked this provision. See http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/04/us/after-ruling-hispanics-flee-an-alabama-town.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2&sq=alabama&st=cse&scp=3& (accessed July 13, 2014).

(63) Ibid.

(67) Gilens 1999; Gilliam 1999; Zucchino 1997. Fully 62 percent of major newsmagazine poverty stories between 1960 and 1992 featured blacks, and nearly 100 percent of the “underclass” in these articles was black (Gilens 1999). Network television news was similarly skewed, with 65 percent of the welfare stories referencing blacks.

(73) It is also possible that the link between immigration and political views extends even more broadly as well as deeply. Indeed, if immigration is pushing Americans to the right across this range of policy questions, then it may ultimately lead to movement across the core liberal-conservative ideological line that often delineates who we are politically.

(75) Many Democratic leaders are reluctant to publicly support immigrants’ rights issues while many Republicans recognize the benefits of cheap labor to business.

(76) Business interests within the Republican Party beholden to cheap immigrant labor clearly favor less regressive immigration reforms, but their views have been less and less likely to be vocalized by party leadership.

(85) By contrast, 97.9 percent of Republicans serving in state houses are white (Bowler and Segura 2012).

(86) National Association of Latino Elected Officials 2012. Latino elected officials were not always so likely to come out of the Democratic Party numbers, but over time the partisan imbalance has grown dramatically.

(98) Another feature of the immigration issue that may make it more likely than other issues to lead to shifts in partisanship is its crosscutting nature. At least until recent decades, Americans who expressed more anti-immigrant views were found in large numbers in both political parties (Newton 2008).

(99) Fox News 2010 survey, cited in Polling Report 2014.

(102) Many contend that attitudes toward blacks continue to strongly shape the white vote and in particular had a substantial impact on Obama’s presidential bid (Lewis-Beck, Tien, and Richard Nadeau 2010; Bobo and Dawson 2009; Tesler and Sears 2010.

(103) Valentino and Sears 2005; Edsall and Edsall 1991. At the same time, it is important to note that there are several authors who dispute just how much of this partisan shift was due to attitudes about African Americans (Shafer and Johnston 2005; Lublin 2004; Abramowitz 1994). According to this alternate view, other factors like economic considerations and social issues helped drive white defection to the Republican Party.

(108) Ha and Olivers 2010; Hood and Morris 1998, 2000; Fox 2004.

(109) For important exception, see Hero and Preuhs 2006. This article reveals a relationship between the size of the state immigrant population and welfare policy at the state level.

(113) On resentment of blacks, see Taylor 1998; Fossett and Kiecolt 1989. See also Oliver and Wong 2003. On violence against blacks, see Corzine et al. 1983; Olzak 1992. On support for racist candidates, see Giles and Buckner 1993; Black and Black 1973. On opposition to policies that might benefit blacks, see Soss, Langbein, and Metelko 2006; Keiser et al. 2004; Fellowes and Rowe 2004. On increased support for white candidates and the Republican Party, see Giles and Evans 1986; Huckfeldt and Kohfeld 1989.

(116) Few white Americans are in direct competition with immigrants for jobs, and wages have not been impacted for anyone but the lowest-skilled Americans (Borjas 2001; Bean and Stevens 2003). Legal immigrants do tend to use more social services than native-born whites (Borjas 2001). And while it is the case that most undocumented immigrants do not pay income tax, they do contribute to the tax base through consumption taxes. But the overall fiscal consequences are at worst slightly negative over the short term and probably positive over the long term (Bean and Stevens 2003; Borjas 2001; Smith and Edmonston 1997). On the cultural side, there is also little sign that immigrants are a real threat. Immigrants and their offspring learn English at impressive rates (Bean and Stevens 2003), are as patriotic as the native population (Citrin et al. 2007), and hold similar values to the rest of the population (de la Garza et al. 1996.

(117) On ethnocentrism, see Kinder and Kam 2010. On social dominance and authoritarian personality, see Pettigrew et al. 2007. On nationalism, see Citrin, Reingold, and Green 1990. On racial prejudice, see Pérez 2010; Schildkraut 2010; Brader, Valentino, and Suhay 2008; Burns and Gimpel 2000.

(121) Ibid.

(125) Further tests indicated that the five measures form a coherent whole (with an alpha scale reliability of 0.73).

(129) Ibid.; Lee 2001. More recent survey data concur. A Pew Research Center (2006) survey reports that whites were roughly twice as likely to believe that Latinos were prone to end up on welfare, increase crime, and do poorly in school than they were to have similar sentiments about Asian Americans.

(130) The National Conference for Community Justice sponsored the Intergroup Relation Survey in 2005.

(131) Experimental research indicates that whites report much higher levels of anxiety about the costs of immigration when the images are of Latinos (Brader, Valentino, and Suhay 2008).

(132) One other possibility is that the higher socioeconomic status of Asian Americans represents more of a threat to members of the white community.

(134) Allport 1954; Jackman and Crane 1986; Pettigrew et al. 2007; Dixon and Rosenbaum 2004. Studies that assess contact with African Americans generally find that it does have positive effects. White Americans who have close ties to racial and ethnic minorities either through work, social activities, or friendship tend to have more favorable views of these groups (McClain et al. 2006; Dixon and Rosenbaum 2004; Pettigrew et al. 2007). But one real concern with many studies of self-reported contact is that it is usually unclear whether contact breeds understanding or whether individuals with more favorable views of the out-group tend to spend more time with members of the out-group. Other studies that assess geographic context and proximity to minorities or immigrants are much more likely to find that proximity is associated with more negative views of the out-group (Newman 2013; Dunaway, Branton, and Abrajano 2010; Ayers and Hofstetter 2008; Hero and Preuhs 2006; but see Scheve and Slaughter 2001; Tolbert and Hero 2001).

(135) In contrast, see Lay 2012.

(136) Bowler and Glazer 2008. See also Dyck, Johnson, and Wassen 2012.

(137) Gallup 1990–2013.

(144) For exceptions that examine the link between immigration and welfare, see Fox 2004; Hero and Preuhs 2006. For a look at the relationship between immigration politics and white partisanship in California, see Bowler, Nicholson, and Segura 2006.

(145) McCarty et al. 2006; Miller and Shanks 1996; Alvarez and Nagler 1995, 1998.

(147) An experimental study conducted by Craig and Richeson (2014), however, shows the relationship between racial demographic change and whites’ ideological preferences.