The Trump administration has floated a supposed compromise on immigration, under which the “dreamers” would get legal status and a path to citizenship. In exchange, the administration would get a long list of draconian immigration restrictions, including money for a border wall and a series of limits on legal immigration. Even Republicans in Congress are balking, and Democrats have rejected it out of hand.
We don’t know where this is going to end up. But what we do know is that both parties will be keenly attuned to what their voters are thinking on this volatile topic. While the immigration issue has been driven in recent years by the Republican base and the GOP’s response to that base — including the election of a naked white nationalist as president — it’s actually Democratic voters who have undergone the more dramatic shift in the past few years.
The opinions of Americans overall do suggest the public is becoming more pro-immigration. In a recent Post/ABC News poll, 65 percent of people said immigrants “mainly strengthen American society,” a percentage about 10 points higher than two years ago. There’s also a near-consensus on dreamers, with polls regularly showing 80 percent or more saying they should be able to stay in the United States. Yet at the same time, we hear so much about the anti-immigrant attitudes of the Republican base and how those attitudes constrain what Republican politicians are allowed to support.
What’s going on? Republican voters may not be changing their views, but Democratic voters are.
Let me refer to some remarkable results from the Pew Research Center, which for over two decades has asked respondents whether “Immigrants today strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents” or “Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and health care.” Look what happened after 2010:
Before then, Democrats and Republicans weren’t much different on this basic question. In subsequent years, Republicans didn’t change much at all, but the opinions of Democrats as a group swung dramatically. In 2010, 48 percent of Democrats said immigrants strengthen our country; by 2017, it was 84 percent.
Other polls have found a similar shift. In that Post/ABC News poll, 80 percent of Democrats said immigrants mainly strengthen American society, up from 65 percent two years ago (for Republicans, the figure was 43 percent). Gallup polls have shown an increasing number of Democrats saying they want more immigrants allowed into the country. All this suggests increasing agreement among Democrats about immigration.
How do we explain the change? Here are just a few critical moments from the past few years of our political history:
- December 2010: The DREAM Act passes the House, then dies in the Senate, the victim of a Republican filibuster, despite the fact that it had 55 votes in favor.
- 2011-2012: Republican presidential primary candidates propose an immigration crackdown; Mitt Romney memorably says he supports “self-deportation,” i.e., making life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they leave the country.
- June 2012: President Barack Obama announces the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, giving dreamers temporary reprieve from deportation and work permits.
- June 2015: Donald Trump announces his presidential bid by calling Mexicans rapists and criminals, then goes on to run a campaign centered on vilifying immigrants and proposing a border wall. It turns out this is just what the Republican base is looking for.
These events changed the discussion about immigration in ways that could have a particular impact on Democratic voters. First and most important, DACA has put much of the focus on the most sympathetic undocumented immigrants, young people who grew up in the United States and have done everything right. Second, there is likely some powerful negative partisanship at work. When Democrats see Republican politicians pandering relentlessly to the most anti-immigrant portion of the GOP base, it encourages them to take the opposite position.
There’s likely another element involved, too: the group of people who call themselves Democrats isn’t the same today as it was a decade ago. The party is steadily getting more racially diverse, more educated and more urban. So while individual Democrats may be changing their minds on immigration, who’s a Democrat has changed as well, and when new generations of Democrats replace those who die off, the party may grow more liberal on this issue (and many others as well).
This change doesn’t mean that a compromise on immigration is impossible. The truth is that while there’s a small portion of the electorate that is implacably anti-immigrant, even many Republicans who favor things such as a border wall have complicated, ambivalent feelings about the subject. You wouldn’t get the enormous numbers in favor of allowing dreamers to stay if they didn’t. But if Democratic politicians realize how unified their base is on this issue, it may change how they negotiate, what they propose and how far they’re willing to go.