The Impact of Immigration on American Democracy: Immigration, a major determinant of political decision
As of 2018, the United States was found to be the country with the most immigrants in the world (Pew research, 2018). Over 40 million immigrants have settled in the United States over the years, accounting for nearly 13.7% of the population. This growth of immigrant numbers has brought with it a number of issues. The advocacy of immigrant rights, immigration law reforms, and discrimination against immigrants are some of the biggest issues that have come up in response to this growing population. But more central to the American political arena, people’s perceptions and attitudes toward immigration have become a powerful determinant of partisan affiliation. Views on policies concerning immigrants have contributed to support and the polarization between the Democratic and Republican parties, more especially amongst the Republican Party supporters. In fact, some political players, like Donald Trump, have used immigration as a tool for mobilizing supporters. Claims such as, ” The democratic party is lax on the borders”, however trivial they seem, have the power to influence partisan identification in the United States.
An article from the Economist discusses the issues of immigration by pointing out how Donald Trump thrived in mobilizing support using the topic of immigration[i]. By taking an anti-immigration stand, Donald Trump was able to win the support of most white Americans. The author also talks about how President Joe Biden’s pro-immigration stance and policies gained popularity and support amongst the growing immigrant population. Immigration has definitely become a serious issue in the political arena. What makes immigration such a big deal? How does it reach the point of influencing partisanship?
The attitudes and views on immigration vary across the United States. Immigration is seen as a social problem by some people in society. David Cisneros highlights that some people view immigration as some sort of pollution, or infestation[ii]. Immigrants are mostly seen as criminal, illegal, dangerous, poor, undeserving, and lazy, especially by white Americans. Despite these negative stereotypes towards immigrants, Diana Mutz brings to consideration the idea of a perceived status threat, which may be a reason for these strong attitudes against immigration. The status threat is in simple terms the fear/ anxiety held by dominant groups of minorities gaining equal and/ or exceeding dominance over them. Commenting on the 2016 election, Diana Mutz suggests that it was a result of the anxiety of dominant groups’ future social status being threatened. She further notes that this perceived status threat is strong because it is a psychological mindset. A perceived status threat from the growing population of immigrants, in fear that they may outnumber the dominant groups and attain a higher social status, could be the reason most white Americans hold strong views against immigration and move towards the right, who have more restrictive policies on immigration.
Similarly, Hochschild, in the book Strangers of their own land (2016), highlights how conservative white Americans feel that they are becoming a minority amongst the growing minorities – ‘immigrants’ – and that certain redistributive policies only favor immigrants. In a metaphor of people in a line moving toward the American dream of economic prosperity, white Americans view their movement as having been stagnant and the reason for this stagnation, apart from economic instability, is the ‘line-cutters’ – minorities groups, immigrants. They believe that certain political parties and policy reforms are helping these ‘line-cutters’ move up the line and reach the American dream before them. The frustration caused by these feelings could be one of the factors that lead most white Americans to look at immigration in a negative light and support political leaders that have anti-immigration ideologies.
Another lens to which immigration is looked at is that immigrants use up welfare, education, and health services, making them a liability rather than assets to the country. The fact that immigration is a noticeable thing doesn’t help the situation. Additionally, Michael Rivera and Zoltan found that how people view immigration is strongly related to their partisan votes[iii]. Overall, immigration has altered the group imagery of the two political parties in the United States. A significant number of white conservative Americans support the republican party, while a large number of Latinos support the democratic party. The fact that the two parties have very divergent positions on the issue of immigration catalyzes party polarization.
With the dynamic shift of the United States’ population from materialism to post-materialism, cultural and social values, as opposed to economic issues, now take the main stage in political discussion. Immigration, climate change, and abortion rights, just to mention a few, now play a significant role in modeling partisan identification. Will the United States, with time, accept the immigrants as part of the country? Will immigration and other social issues continue to shape partisanship and increase party polarization?
Cisneros, J. D. (2008). Contaminated Communities: The Metaphor of “Immigrant as
Pollutant” in Media Representations of Immigration. Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 11(4), 569–601. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41940396
Hochschild, A. R. (2016). Strangers in their own land: anger and mourning on the
American right. BEMIS book club kit. New York; London: New Press.
Hajnal, Z., & Rivera, M. U. (2014). Immigration, Latinos, and White Partisan Politics: The
New Democratic Defection. American Journal of Political Science, 58(4), 773–789. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24363525
Mutz, D. C. (2018). Status threat, not economic hardship, explains the 2016 presidential vote. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 115(19), E4330–E4339. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1718155115
[ii] Cisneros, J. D. (2008). Contaminated Communities: The Metaphor of “Immigrant as
Pollutant” in Media Representations of Immigration
[iii] Hajnal, Z., & Rivera, M. U. (2014). Immigration, Latinos, and White Partisan Politics: The New Democratic Defection.