by Ronald Brownstein, January 30, 2017, for CNN
In the battle for control of both Congress and the White House, Republicans rely overwhelmingly on the places in the US that remain the least touched by immigration. Democrats depend primarily on the places with the most immigrants.
That contrast frames the inverse dynamic driving this volatile debate: generally it is the places with the least exposure to immigrants that are seeking to limit future migration, over the objections of the places with the most.
Even that paradox doesn’t capture the full complexity of the conflict. At the federal level, Republicans led by President Donald Trump are now urging not only a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, but also the biggest reduction in legal immigration since the 1920s. But simultaneously, more local officials from both parties across the heartland are trying to attract immigrants they consider indispensable to their strategies for maintaining economic vitality and a critical mass of population.
“My sense is if you talk to local elected officials, policy makers, business owners, faith leaders, they get it — they completely understand that immigration is what is going to keep them going,” says Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, and author of the book “There Goes The Neighborhood,” which explores how communities across America are adapting to new arrivals. “But, especially in this day and age, for them to make that case publicly, when the other bullhorn is held by the President, is really, really hard.”
Trump would trade protection for “Dreamers” for drastic cuts in legal immigration
Trump has disappointed some conservatives by indicating that he’s willing to accept a pathway to citizenship — albeit an elongated one — for a substantial portion of the so-called “Dreamers,” young people brought to the country illegally by their parents and previously protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. But he has infuriated Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups by tying any potential protection for the Dreamers not only to funding for a border wall and enhanced enforcement measures but also substantial reductions in legal immigration.
Both in the 2016 primaries and general election, Trump relied preponderantly on support from the voters most resistant to immigration. A majority of Republican voters supported building Trump’s proposed border wall in just two of the 20 states where exit polls measured sentiment
on the question in GOP primaries. Yet that minority of Republicans supported Trump in such overwhelming numbers that they provided a majority of the votes he received in 18 of the 20 states.
In the general election, the exit poll likewise found that just 41% of voters supported building the wall while a 54% majority opposed it. Yet once again Trump won such an overwhelming percentage among the minority that supported the wall (85% of whom voted for him) that they provided about three-fourths of all the votes he received, according to the exit poll.
The share of voters who believed that all undocumented immigrants in the US should be deported, as opposed to receiving legal status, was even smaller: just 25%, according to the exit poll. Yet once again they voted for Trump in such overwhelming numbers (more than four-in-five) that this relatively small group provided about 45% of his total votes.
A reliance on the places with the least exposure to immigration
Geographically the contrasts were equally pointed. In both Congress and the Electoral College, the GOP now relies predominantly on the places with the least exposure to immigration.
According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, in 2016 immigrants exceeded or equaled their 13.5% share of the national population in fourteen states. Trump won just three of them: Florida, Texas and Arizona. Hillary Clinton won the other 11, including eight of the top 10: California, New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, Nevada, Massachusetts, Maryland and Connecticut.
Overall, Clinton carried 16 of the 20 states where people born abroad constitute the largest share of the population. (Georgia was the only other state in the top 20 that Trump carried.)
Trump, in turn, dominated the places with fewer immigrants. He won 26 of the 30 states where immigrants constituted the smallest share of the population. (Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine were the only exceptions.) In 19 states, immigrants comprise only one-in-every-20 residents or less. Trump won all of them except for Vermont and Maine. The states on the very bottom of the list for immigrant presence represented some of Trump’s strongest: West Virginia, Mississippi, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Alabama, Kentucky and South Dakota.
A new focus on legal immigration
The demands from Trump and some GOP legislators in each chamber for cutbacks represent the GOP’s first serious attempt to retrench legal immigration since 1996, after the 1994 landslide that swept the party to control of both congressional chambers for the first time in 40 years. That earlier push never generated much momentum: though the House Judiciary Committee approved cutbacks, one-third of House Republicans joined most Democrats to block them on the floor. Just 20 senators supported legal immigration reductions, with three-fourths of Republicans (including John McCain, Orrin Hatch and Mitch McConnell) voting no.