When President Trump speaks to Congress and the nation tonight, he will almost certainly mention the immigration proposal he wants Congress to pass. His plan includes a path to citizenship for “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought here as children — an issue that briefly shut down the U.S. government and may well do so again.
But Trump’s approach is a major departure from the way the United States has handled immigration for the past 50 years. Among other things, the plan would greatly cut down on visas for immigrants without advanced skills; that will probably be opposed by industries such as agriculture and tourism that rely on low-skilled immigrants to come to the United States temporarily to work in the fields and behind counters.
To the surprise of some, the Republican Congress largely supports Trump’s restrictionist approach to immigration. Apparently Republicans are favoring their nativist base over their traditional allies in business. Why?
The Republican Party has long been the party of both business and nativists. For most of its history, the party’s business wing has reined in the nativists. But aside from a few individual industries, businesses overall are less interested in open immigration — freeing Republican members of Congress to cater to the nativists. It’s not that nativism is increasing; it’s that fewer businesses demand low-skilled immigrants.
Nativism is declining
The Republicans’ anti-immigration stance might make sense if nativism was on the rise. But contrary to conventional wisdom, nativism is not increasing in the United States. As you can see in the figure below, anti-immigrant sentiment reached its most recent height in the mid-1990s.
Recent surveys from Gallup show that more and more Americans are happy with the status quo — or even want more immigration. As has been widely reported, a majority of Americans want to see a pathway to legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants (not just dreamers) currently here. Thousands showed their support for immigrants last year when they showed up at airports to protest Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries and by turning out for pro-immigration, anti-deportation rallies.
So why are nativists having so much success — arguably even turning into the swing vote for the president? As I show in my book, nativists have increased influence not because more Americans agree with them, but because most businesses no longer care about immigration. Increased globalization has changed the amount and kind of labor that most U.S. businesses need.
With globalization, U.S. businesses don’t need as many immigrants
As President Trump has noted, because of decreasing trade barriers, many U.S. manufacturing companies have closed — especially those that employed large numbers of low-skill immigrant workers. Those employers are no longer around to lobby for immigration. For the same reason, those U.S. companies that do rely on manufacturing have moved their factories overseas. Why should businesses fight to bring Chinese workers to the United States when they can move factories to China?
Furthermore, companies have increasingly automated production and so need fewer workers. The U.S. steel industry, for example, produces as much steel today as it did in 1960, but it does so with a third of its former workforce. Companies also stop lobbying for immigration when they need fewer workers because of automation.
Since businesses have less need for immigrant labor, they’ve stopped lobbying to keep the gates open
As part of my research, I checked to see whether businesses are indeed lobbying less often on immigration. To find this out, I examined which groups testified before Congress on immigration, using that as one measure of lobbying.
Here’s what I found. In the 1950s, on average, more than eight businesses used to testify before Congress at each hearing on immigration. By 2010, that number had dropped to two, as you can see in the figure below. The decline has been even steeper for industries that have been exposed to increased imports from foreign countries — from eight businesses that produce goods that can be traded per hearing in the 1950s to less than one today.
Some industry groups have increased their lobbying for more immigration — but those are in the tech sector and others that use high-skill labor. We should expect, then, that Trump will continue to push in his State of the Union address Tuesday for a “merit-based system” in which immigrants with high skills get priority.
In contrast, lobbying by nativist groups has hardly increased.
Without business pressure, Republican politicians cater to nativists
This decreased business support for immigration has hit the Republican Party much harder than the Democratic Party. While we think of the Democratic Party as the pro-immigration party today, this has been true for only the past 30 years or so. A look at support for immigration in the Senate shows that the Republican Party was the pro-immigration party from the 1870s until the 1970s, as you can see in the figure below.
In shifting its stance on immigration, the Republican Party hasn’t abandoned its business base for the nativists. Rather, businesses have abandoned their support for immigration, and Republicans have followed.
Note: an earlier version of the first figure above was mislabeled. We regret the error.
Margaret E. Peters is an assistant professor of political science at UCLA and author of the book “Trading Barriers: Immigration and the Remaking of Globalization” (Princeton University Press, 2017).