Immigration has become a polarising issue in the 2016 US election campaign
by Richard McLachlan
How, in a global metropolis like New York, do you write about immigration as a problem to be solved? And yet immigration is a hot button issue among those fighting to break away from the unruly clump of starters in the race for Republican nominee.
In my neighborhood, the women at the supermarket checkout speak Spanish, as do the men stocking the shelves, those renovating and reroofing the houses, or redistributing fallen leaves with backpack blowers, in all the streets nearby.
Four blocks away from our house, almost everyone speaks Urdu. The shops, their contents, people’s clothing, the mosques and madrassas – it’s as though you have suddenly crossed a border into Pakistan. Walk across Coney Island Avenue and people with pale skin like mine are not speaking English – it’s Russian, or Uzbek, or the languages of the adjacent states. And it’s like this in any direction you walk.
Documented or otherwise, immigrants play such an important role in the US economy, that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain felt confident to say recently, “If Mr. Trump deports 11 million people … every restaurant in America would shut down”.
It is dissonant to hear one particular group being called ‘immigrants’ and the others ‘Americans.’ The USA has depended for its viability as a nation state on massive immigration flows. In some quarters, the former are described as changing the character of a nation that belongs to the latter. For Representative Steve King (R) of Iowa:
“The immigration issue is an existential threat to the constitutional republic of the United States. If we continue this cultural transformation through a willful immigration policy, America is unrecognizable in the very short-term.” King just endorsed anti-immigration Presidential aspirant Ted Cruz as “A candidate whom God will use to restore the soul of America.”
However the nativists of their day may have viewed Irish and Italian immigrants, the current ‘threat’ is now people from the south. Rush Limbaugh sees immigrants as a new intake of Democrat voters. He takes immigration anxiety to new levels:
“What is happening on our Southern border is not immigration. This is an invasion. And it’s not just happening here. It’s happening in all parts of Europe, where borders essentially don’t even exist”.
A turning point that allows for this framing of immigration as a problem, a form of racial prejudice masquerading as concern, is the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. This piece of legislation replaced a quota system that favored immigrants from Europe with one emphasizing family reunification and skilled immigrants, leading to a shift toward immigrants from south of the border, so that fifty-one percent of the roughly 59 million immigrants arriving in the US between 1965 and 2015 are from Latin America.
Much of the debate during these primaries has focused on ‘illegal immigrants’ (a distasteful term to many) who have survived the extraordinary obstacles to crossing the US southern border. These 11 million people working and paying taxes in the USA are the vehicle by which Republican presidential aspirants differentiate themselves from their colleagues. The catch cries include ‘path to citizenship’, ‘amnesty’, ‘secure the border’, ‘pristine record’, ‘anchor baby’, ‘sanctuary cities’, and so on, and candidates in the primaries are being judged on the positions they adopt.
Among the rhetoric is the suggestion that ‘illegal’ immigration by so-called ‘queue-jumpers’ is unfair to those waiting to immigrate by legal means. However there is no line to stand in for the hundreds of thousands of unskilled migrant workers on whose services so much of the economy depends. The existence of a legal immigration pathway for those working in Silicon Valley, and the lack of it for those cleaning their houses and minding their children is not a natural phenomenon – it is a policy decision.
Donald Trump, from a position of undeniable media supremacy, has established a dramatic reference point on immigration. His racist rhetoric, his ‘plan’ to deport the 11 million undocumented migrants, and his proposed wall along the southern border, has forced the debate into alarming territory for establishment candidates forced to confront the more extreme positions of their support base.
Famous-neurosurgeon-with-no-political-experience Ben Carson just positioned himself to the left of Rubio and possibly Bush by saying that unauthorized immigrants currently in the US should get legal status. This will alarm his conservative support base in a way that may or may not be compensated for by their support for his more extreme religious positions.
The difference in stance between the Republican base and the right wing media that provokes them on the one hand, and Congressional Republican and pragmatic business-oriented attitudes toward immigration on the other, is playing out in the Presidential primaries.
The more lenient immigration policies of Florida Governor Jeb Bush, referred to in the LA Times as the candidate ‘anointed’ by the Republican establishment, have not found favor with the base. Although his recent suggestion that only Christian refugees by allowed in from Syria may redeem him in some circles.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio, his one-time protégé, has now overtaken him. Rubio is third in line after ‘outsiders’ Donald Trump and Ben Carson. These last two have the support of almost 50 percent of the Republican base nationally. They are running almost neck-and-neck at 24.8 and 24.4 respectively, with Rubio well behind at 11.8, followed by Tea Party extremist Ted Cruz at 9 percent, and then Jeb Bush at 6 percent.
Rightwing opinion in the US political media is using the phrase ‘donor-class agenda’ to describe the position of a powerful group of business interests and political funders, highly influential in the Republican party and well placed to influence the election and the makeup of Congress. Their alleged motivation with respect to immigration is to increase the flow of cheap labor into the US. Those resisting them say this will destroy American jobs.
Cuban-American senator Marco Rubio is beginning to attract serious donor funding. Those who consider him inadequately conservative on immigration matters have not forgotten his 2013 support for legislation to provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented migrants. Here’s talk radio host Rush Limbaugh: “in the first 12 months of the Rubio or Jeb administration, first 12 to 18 months, the donor-class agenda is implemented, including amnesty and whatever else they want.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan and Rubio are regarded on the Right as advocates for an ‘open borders’ immigration policy:
“In 2013, while aggressively stumping for Rubio’s immigration plan, Ryan called for the implementation of open borders immigration policies which would allow for the legal and free movement of foreign labor and foreign goods across national boundaries…”
Conservative media organization, Breitbart News, and Rush Limbaugh, among others, position the donor class and the Congressional Republicans in opposition to a majority of the Republican constituency who regard immigration as a problem. This constituency extends beyond the hard core ‘base’ of Republican resentment toward newcomers; they cite evidence suggesting seventy-one percent of Republicans believe immigrants are making the economy worse. This vehement opposition is making a humane position on immigration very difficult for any Republican contender.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz, another Congressional ‘insider’ who entered the Senate on a strong Tea Party platform, is against legitimating the status of undocumented migrants. He brands Rubio as insufficiently conservative on the issue, accusing him of “trying to jam this amnesty down the American people’s throats.”
Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington identifies four distinct groups in the Republican electorate. There are two groups of very conservative voters, either evangelical or secular, ‘somewhat conservative’ voters, and moderate or liberal voters. The somewhat conservatives comprise up to 40 percent of Republican voters. It is this group that has hitherto chosen the primary winner.
Much has been made of the Republican party’s need to attract Hispanic support, and yet the argument has been made that the Latino vote will not be decisive for Republicans this year. This is because of anomalies in the distribution of Electoral College votes in states that are predicted to favor the Democrats. Further, in recent years immigration has not been among the first three concerns of Hispanics. Immigration is fourth after jobs, the economy, and healthcare.
Decisive evidence for the economic advantages or disadvantages of immigration is hard to find. But whether it marginally improves or disadvantages a host nation state, no one is blaming the rust belt, the Global Financial Crisis, or the coming hollowing out of the white-collar workforce on Mexicans coming up from the south. The self-serving quest of global capital across borders is another matter.
These are unusual times. The depth of anger at establishment politics may have been under-estimated. It is clear that Donald Trump’s self-funded rise to prominence has taken many by surprise. The confident dismissal and assured “he’ll never triumph in the primaries, let alone become President” is less in evidence these days.
That said, the power of big money in American politics is undeniable and business interests do seem to favor pragmatism and predictability, neither of which could be said about Ben Carson. How a man who believes the world was created in six days and that there is no such thing as a war crime, might handle global strategic and political challenges, should be both entertaining and alarming.
With Bush losing support among Republicans, it is interesting to consider this proposal: Rubio and Harvard-qualified lawyer and classically trained debater Ted Cruz, ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’, to date both relatively constrained in the debates, are each waiting for the field to clear. This would give the two of them an arena for a focused and decisive battle. The winner would be the Presidential candidate, the loser his running mate, thus uniting a currently divided party.
Since 1828 (yes that’s right, 187 years) there have been only two instances when the Democrats have won a third term in the Presidency. The Republicans have won four in the same period. This talk of insider and outsider candidates for the nomination exists firmly in the context of a genuine possibility that one of these candidates may actually become the next US President.
And as for context – in the 6 days before this goes to press, the ground will shift significantly. Already Rubio has said the US should stop taking Syrian refugees, both Bush and Cruz have said only Christians, many Republican state governors are saying they will not accept them, Washington DC has been threatened with attack by ISIS, and Obama is under pressure to put boots on the ground in Syria.
Regardless of whether you sympathize with Rush Limbaugh’s paranoid metaverse, he’s right in pointing to migration as a big global deal. It is a deal with far greater significance than atavistic notions of America as a nation of hard-working white people. Whether a Republican base, made ‘mad as hell’ by Fox and friends, will allow their nominee to act sensibly in this changing environment, or just try and turn the US into a vast gated community, remains to be seen.