The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Immigrants' political views are a lot closer to those of natives than you might think


One of the more sophisticated arguments for tight restrictions on immigration advanced by conservatives (and some libertarians) is the claim that admitted more immigrants is likely to result in harmful public policies by changing public opinion for the worse. Even if immigrants make valuable contributions to the economy or the culture, the game may not be worth the candle if they create dangerous "political externalities," perhaps even to the extent of undermining the relative freedom and prosperity that make the US an attractive destination for immigrants in the first place.

I. Immigrant-Native Differences are Small.

But fears about political externalities are only plausible if immigrants have political views that diverge greatly from those of natives. This recent Cato Institute analysis by economist Sam Wilson and Cato immigration policy analyst Alex Nowrasteh suggests that the divergence between the two is generally small and nearly nonexistent among second and third generation descendants of immigrants. Using data from the General Social Survey, the authors show that immigrants and their second and third generation descendants have very similar views to those of native-born Americans whose ancestors came to this country four generations ago or longer. This is particularly true on the crucial issue of welfare state spending, which is a particular object of concern for conservative and libertarian immigration restrictionists. Very much like natives, a large plurality of immigrants believe that "welfare" spending is too high. But, at the same time, strong majorities of both groups believe that government "assistance to the poor" is too low.

Like natives, immigrants overwhelmingly believe that federal income taxes are too high. First generation immigrants are actually slightly less supportive than natives of spending on Social Security, which is a much larger welfare state program than means-tested assistance to the poor (though a majority still believe that benefit levels are too low). The similarity between immigrants' and natives views on welfare state issues is likely one of the reasons why states with large numbers of immigrants do not have higher welfare spending than those with few.

There are statistically significant ideological and partisan differences between first generation immigrants and natives. The former are slightly more likely to identify as ideologically liberal and as Democrats, and significantly less likely to consider themselves Republicans (and far more likely to call themselves independents). These divergences from natives largely disappear among second and third generation immigrants, however.

The figures presented in the paper aggregate all of the GSS data from 1972 to the present. But, in private correspondence, the authors inform me that the results do not change significantly if we isolate the most recent data (e.g.—from 2000 to 2012).

The significance of first generation immigrants' somewhat divergent political views is greatly diminished by the fact that they have very little political influence relative to their numbers. Most first generation immigrants cannot become citizens until five years after their arrival, and some take longer than that to apply for citizenship. Those who are citizens (and thus eligible to vote) have much lower turnout rates than natives, including in states with unusually large immigrant populations, like California. And, obviously, first generation immigrants are far less likely to influence politics in ways that go beyond voting, such as running for elected office, becoming political activists, and making campaign contributions.

II. The Relevance for Debates over Immigration Policy.

The strong similarity between immigrants' and natives' political views isn't all good news. It certainly does not prove that most immigrants' views on public policy are insightful or well-informed. Like natives, immigrant voters are prone to widespread political ignorance and "rational irrationality." First-generation immigrant voters might, however, actually be slightly better informed than native-born voters in some respects. In order to become citizens, immigrants have to pass a citizenship test that includes basic civic knowledge. Many native-born Americans would flunk the test.

If, like me, you believe that majority public opinion is wrong on many issues, the fact that immigrants and natives have generally similar views undermines hopes that the former might change the distribution of public opinion for the better. Immigrants can potentially create beneficial political externalities as well as harmful ones. But most of the recent debate over the political effects of immigration centers more on fears that it will make things worse than on hopes for possible improvement.

Even if immigrants' and natives' political views diverged more than they actually do, and in a way likely to create substantial negative effects, it would not necessarily follow that we are justified in imposing immigration restrictions to solve the problem. There are many less coercive strategies for controlling political externalities that should be tried first. Even if those strategies are ineffective or politically infeasible, we would only be justified in using immigration restrictions to eliminate political externalities if the harm caused by the latter is great enough to outweigh the large benefits of immigration for both would-be immigrants and natives.

Be that as it may, the GSS data suggest that the political externalities of immigration—both positive and negative—are likely to be small or even nonexistent. That certainly doesn't fully resolve the debate over immigration. There are a variety of other arguments for restrictionist policies. But it does undermine what may be the most powerful and sophisticated claim often advanced by conservative and libertarian restrictionists.

III. Explaining the Democratic Party's Relatively Pro-Immigration Positions.

Cynics might wonder why the Democratic Party wants to liberalize immigration policy if new first-generation immigrants are not likely to give them a huge bonanza of additional votes. There is a fairly simple answer. While the average voter is not nearly as pro-immigration as I am, majorities do favor moderate liberalization, including a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The Democrats' political base is particularly likely to be pro-immigration. In addition, when the Democrats take a relatively pro-immigrant stance, that predictably generates harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric among hard-core Republican restrictionists, which tends to alienate Hispanic voters and make the GOP look intolerant. As Republican National Committee chairman Rance Preibus has pointed out, that benefits the Democrats and harms the GOP. In sum, the Democrats benefit from adopting a modestly pro-immigration position because that position attracts support from native-born voters and generates self-destructive behavior among some Republicans.

But it's also noteworthy that the Democrats did not make immigration a significant priority until President Obama was in the lame duck phase of his administration, and that they couple moderate steps towards liberalization with major increases in deportation and imprisonment of immigrants, often under very harsh conditions. If party leaders really believed that immigration liberalization would lead to major political advantages for them, and the Obama administration would have pushed the issue when they controlled Congress in 2009-10, and might have adopted a different approach on deportation and imprisonment. The party's actual behavior is consistent with the notion that Democratic strategists believe that being more pro-immigrant the GOP is politically advantageous, but not nearly enough to make it one of the party's top priorities, except perhaps in situations where they are blocked from pursuing most of their other domestic goals -as is the case at present.

UPDATE: I have made a few minor changes to the wording of this post.