It used to be that expressing the concern that immigration threatens to undermine America was considered unacceptable in political discussions. Most Americans believe that immigration makes the country stronger, not weaker, and such assertions hark back to the grim treatment of immigration as a political issue a century ago. Then, politicians demonized immigrants and passed laws restricting their arrival, an effort generally understood to be at odds with the country’s ideals — when it wasn’t explicitly racist.
So it’s strange to see the idea that immigrants pose a threat to the country emerging as an acceptable, if not preferred, talking point. It came up recently, as such rhetoric often does, on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, on which he argued that Democrats were encouraging wave after wave of immigrants to reshape the electorate to their advantage. We’ve repeatedly seen the ways by which political claims are used as proxies for racial ones in recent months, and Carlson’s track record makes clear that his concern is about more than there being a new counterweight to the Republican vote.
After Carlson elevated and sanitized this argument — which is popular among self-proclaimed white nationalists (for obvious reasons) — it began propagating out through his party. Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) invoked it during a discussion about immigration in April, for example. But just in the past two days, two prominent Republicans have made the same argument Carlson did.
First was House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who, in a campaign ad published on Facebook, argued that Democrats were “planning their most aggressive move yet: a PERMANENT ELECTION INSURRECTION.” That was manifested, the ad said, in the left’s “plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants,” which it said will “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.”
“Overthrow our current electorate” is, of course, an odd way to frame a country in which the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, received 10 percent more votes than the Republican in the most recent election, but more on that in a moment.
She was joined by Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R). In an appearance on Fox News on Thursday, he complained about the state of immigration at his state’s southern border.
“The revolution has begun — a silent revolution by the Democrat Party and Joe Biden to take over this country,” he said. After casting migration as an “invasion” — itself a historically fraught assertion — he described a dire future. “In 18 years, if every one of them has 2 or 3 children, you’re talking about millions and millions and millions of new voters,” he said. “And they will thank the Democrats and Biden for bringing them here. Who do you think they’re going to vote for? This is trying to take over our country without firing a shot.”
That “millions and millions” claim is based on Patrick’s assertion that the Biden administration is allowing millions of people to come into the country this year, an assertion that he acknowledges is based on apprehension figures. But apprehended migrants often have been quickly sent back out of the country in recent months, under a rule leveraging the coronavirus pandemic as a rationale.
Regardless, all of this melodrama misses two important points about immigration in the United States now and in the past. The first is, again, that we’ve already had this debate, resolving it in a way that led to the America we see now. The second is that these arguments are enormously shortsighted for the Republican Party.
The historical problem
One of the features of debating immigration in the United States is that it’s fairly easy to pick out very specific examples of hypocrisy on the subject. For example, there are not, to my knowledge, a lot of Native Americans with the last names of “Patrick” or “Stefanik.” The former name is of Irish ancestry and the latter Polish — both national groups that were part of large surges to the United States and both part of groups that were then derided as problematic for the cohesiveness of the nation.
A century ago, the country was at the tail end of decades of largely unrestricted immigration. About 1 in 8 Americans were immigrants, generally from Europe. That was particularly true of the Irish who, pushed west by the potato famine in the mid-1800s, soon became the most populous immigrant group in most eastern states. You can see how much immigration revolved around Irish arrivals in the graph below. In 1850, a bit under half of all foreign-born residents of the United States had come from that country. Polish immigrants also began arriving in large numbers in the late 19th century, constituting a larger percentage of foreign-born residents in the first half of the 20th (in part because of migration caused by the World Wars).
(The data used in these charts is from the 2006 paper “Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850 to 2000,” written by the Census Bureau’s Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung. It excludes data for 1940 and 1950 because “data on the foreign-born population by country of birth in census publications for these years are limited almost entirely to the White population.”)
Both groups triggered blowback. The Irish were often pilloried and, at times, barred explicitly from employment. This was in part because of their religion; native-born Protestants were wary of an influx of Catholics. Polish immigrants were lumped in with Italians (like Carlson’s ancestors) and other Eastern European migrants and often considered unintelligent (hence the jokes) or dirty. At the time, the concept of “White” applied largely to Northern Europeans and Anglo-Saxons; only slowly did the Irish and Eastern Europeans come to join that group.
You see where this is going. To a resident of the United States in 1850, this surge of migrants from Ireland or Eastern Europe may have seemed threatening, something that would trigger an unacceptable shift in what and who America was. But, over time, they simply became part of the fabric of the country, with their descendants being born American citizens and, further down the line, earning elected office in state and federal government. By now, no one would blink at a lieutenant governor named “Patrick.”
It’s less clear how they would feel about one named “Goeb” — Patrick’s last name at birth. The origin of Goeb is German, an immigrant group that made up as much as 30 percent of the foreign-born population in the second half of the 19th century. He adopted “Patrick” after college as he sought a career in broadcasting — which, of course, tells a story of its own. His new last name was easy to pronounce and inoffensive, thanks to a century of Irish assimilation.
It is true that there are more immigrants coming to the United States now each year than there were 100 years ago. It is also true that, following revisions to immigration law in the late 1960s, the birthplaces of America’s foreign-born population have shifted from Europe to Latin America and Asia.
But that dramatic-looking chart doesn’t consider the growing population. If we look at each group relative to the total U.S. population, the picture changes dramatically.
That graph ends in 2000. The most recent Census Bureau figures, from 2019, would put the total height of the column for that year at about 135,000 — about where the column for 1900 ends up. In the context of the past 175 years, where we are now is about where we were then, allowing one to look at the current moment as the aberration or to look at the 1930-to-1990 period in that way.
The future problem
It seems possible that had the anti-immigrant forces of a century ago had their way, there would have been far fewer Patricks and Stefaniks to blend into the fabric of the United States. This is how that blending works: The remarkable slowly becomes unremarkable, as immigrants’ children are born as Americans. Patrick’s agitated concern about children voting in 18 years is, in essence, a complaint about American citizens with immigrant, largely Hispanic parents being an unacceptable component of the electorate. It’s an odd argument for a senior government official in Texas of all places to make.
That’s the point, of course. Patrick and Stefanik recognize the short-term utility of intertwining partisanship with Hispanic immigration. There’s a reason that her pitch was in a fundraising appeal and Patrick’s came when appearing before Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s sympathetic audience. They’re making the same case as Carlson, yes, but also as Donald Trump, who in 2016 claimed that Republicans would never win another election if Hillary Clinton was elected that year and allowed more immigrants into the country. Partisanship is the spoonful of sugar being used to help the argument about race go down more easily.
But the weird thing is that the core assumption — that those immigrants and their children will vote Democratic — is itself dubious. Hispanic voters do tend to prefer Democrats, but not at the rate of Black voters, for example. Research from EquisLabs suggested that new immigrants to the United States were more likely than Hispanics overall to vote for Trump last year.
It’s also the case that the children and grandchildren of Hispanic immigrants are less likely to identify as Hispanic as time passes. Those children Patrick is fuming about may end up voting no differently than the White people in their communities. They may assimilate, in other words, just as Patrick’s family did.
This is the most toxic part of all of this, really. The GOP could downplay concerns about how demography is shifting, recognizing, for example, that delineations such as “White” are gauzier than people assume. Research shows that hostility to the country’s changing composition is correlated to how those changes are presented, with the zero-sum and incomplete “there will be fewer Whites” narrative proving most triggering to White Republicans — which is why Trump, Carlson, Stefanik and Patrick all find it useful in the moment.
There’s another question to be asked about where the country is headed: To what extent is this particular rhetoric baking in the sort of hostility that Patrick and Stefanik assume their party will face? And what’s the cost to immigrants in the meantime, as they’re treated as undesirable, invading hordes?
With luck, their futures will look like the Patrick and Stefanik families. With luck, immigrants who come to the country legally will enjoy a country where they have the same opportunities as anyone.
This article has been updated to reflect Patrick's birth name.