Print options

April 26, 2013

Immigration Shapes US Political Parties as Much as Demographics

by Kate Woodsome

The debate in Congress over immigration reform has as much to do with the fate of America’s two main political parties as it does with the demographics of the United States.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties are pushing immigration reform now in part to secure Hispanic votes later, but their parties’ future may be out of their control.

Voters are political currency for whichever party can woo them, and right now, the Democrats are way ahead, not just with Hispanics, but also with Asian-Americans, an increasingly important voting bloc. About 71 percent of Hispanic voters and 73 percent of Asian-American voters cast ballots for Democratic President Barack Obama in the 2012 election.

Of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., about eight million are Hispanic, while about 1.3 million are Asian and Pacific Islanders, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Members of both groups have indicated in national surveys that they lean more Democratic than Republican - something both parties are considering as they decide whether to put many of the undocumented immigrants on a path to citizenship and, ultimately, voting rights.

Some political analysts attribute those pro-Democratic Party sentiments in part to the anti-immigration rhetoric used last year by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Some say another factor is President Obama’s efforts to help undocumented youths avoid deportation if they were brought to the U.S. illegally by their families.

“Immigration alone is not going to make someone vote Republican or Democratic, but we do know from all the polling that if either party is seen as blocking immigration reform, that’s going to be an easy way to lose voters,” said Philip Wolgin, senior immigration policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

Battlegrounds

Wolgin said traditionally Republican states such as Arizona, Texas, North Carolina and Georgia have the potential to move toward the Democrats as “voters of color, particularly Latino voters, are becoming an ever-larger share of the total voting population.”

Those states are considered political battlegrounds that can determine a presidential election, and they’ll add even more “voters of color” if the proposed path to citizenship is approved by Congress.

Asians and Hispanics are the fastest growing demographic groups in the U.S. About 430,000 Asians moved to the U.S. in 2010, making up about 36 percent of all new legal and illegal immigration. The same year, 370,000 Hispanics came to the U.S., according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center, a leading source of immigration data. 

As impressive as these numbers may seem, Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Research Hispanic Center, says it’s hard to tell what they mean for the future.

Historically, he noted, there is a relatively low naturalization rate among Hispanic immigrants who often face language and financial barriers, or simply aren’t interested in becoming U.S. citizens. Since the year 2000, only about a third of Mexicans, the largest Hispanic group in the U.S., have become citizens. Asians, on the other hand, have the highest naturalization rate among immigrants to the United States.

"We don't know what partisanship will look like," Lopez said. "We don't know what the future will hold."

No risk, no change

Politicians see the uncertainty, but some Republicans once wary of immigration reform aren’t taking any risks.

Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, who represents a state on the Mexican border, is part of the team that crafted the new immigration bill. Discussing the legislation last week, he talked about the political reality.

"If we pass this bill, I don't think we gain a single Hispanic vote immediately,'' he said. "What it does is it puts us on a level playing field to compete for those votes.”

Virginia Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte may stall the Senate's momentum on the reform bill. The former immigration lawyer has said he personally supports offering undocumented immigrants a legal status, but not necessarily citizenship, and that he would take his time looking at the proposed legislative reforms.

"By taking a fine-toothed comb through each of the individual issues within the larger immigration debate, it'll help us get a better bill that will benefit Americans and provide a workable immigration system," he told reporters in Washington Thursday.

Politicization of immigration

U.S. politicians have long used immigration for political purposes. The Naturalization Act of 1798, passed under President John Adams of the Federalist Party, increased the residency requirements from two to 14 years. The long wait prevented immigrants, who mainly voted for the Republican Party at the time, from quickly becoming eligible voters.    

Wolgin said he sees a similar tactic being used in the current reform bill, which proposes a 13-year residency requirement for unauthorized immigrants to become citizens, rather than the five-year wait for legal immigrants.

“There is a fear that if you legalized everybody today, they would vote Democratic. I think that’s a part of it,” he said. “If you can push it off for longer, that gives Republicans more of a chance to try to get right and sway the body.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Republicans will be successful, Wolgin said, but it will give them time to build bridges and get past the “nativism and anti-immigrant rhetoric” that has hurt their party.

No turning back

For its political survival, the Republican Party may have no choice but to diversify its white base because the face of the U.S. is becoming irrefutably browner.

William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based policy research group, said the U.S. population is aging, which means lower reproductive rates among white Americans. Hispanic and Asian immigrant groups traditionally are younger, which means higher reproductive rates. 

“Those minorities are growing very rapidly at younger age groups at the same time that the older population is mostly white,” Frey said. “So move out 20 or 30 years, and the younger population is increasingly Asian and Hispanic, and the older population will be made up of white ‘baby boomers.’”

Frey said it’s hard to predict how the current immigration reform bill might affect immigration patterns in the future, since a lot has to do with factors beyond the U.S. borders.

Pointing to Mexico’s declining birthrate and U.S. economic woes, he said, “the big surge of Latin American immigration that came to the U.S. in the last 20 years may not be as strong over time.”

Frey also noted the parts of the immigration reform bill that address legal immigration are placing more emphasis on jobs and skills than on family unification.

“The people coming on employment-based visas, they tend to be from Asian countries, so that could shift the nature of origin countries,” he said.

Next generation

Most of the political debate in Washington is focused on what to do with the undocumented immigrants now, and how immigration reform might affect the next election season. But Frey said it’s really the second and third generations of immigrants that should concern politicians.

“Hispanics are not doing as well as earlier generations of Americans in terms of high school graduation and college graduation. It’s improving but they still have very high dropout rates,” he said, noting that it’s in the best interest of both major political parties to support policies that can help the children of immigrants move into the middle class.

“Eventually they're going to get to issues that are important to immigrant populations besides immigration,” Frey said. “The second issue is the education of their children, and I think right now Democrats would get support and would be more likely to do something.”