The dysfunction of U.S. immigration politics has been made excruciatingly clear with the expiration of Title 42 and the arrival of potentially tens of thousands of immigrants per day at the southern border.
Both the Trump and Biden administrations used the 1944 public health law to turn away asylum seekers since the onset of the pandemic, and the mess that government officials are now grappling with was entirely expected. Yet here we are.
News coverage is portraying the border as under-resourced, disorderly and soft. (It is.) Worse, the issue of immigration is being portrayed as principally about the admission of people in desperate humanitarian need. (It is most definitely not.) But the fact that the grand narrative portrays global mobility as a struggle between security and charity — triggered every time a “caravan” approaches — is a failure not just of good policymaking, but of immigrant rights activists’ effort to establish a consensus around newcomers’ positive place in America.
Immigration is not just subject to partisan polarization on Capitol Hill; it is now the fulcrum of polarization across the country. According to March polling from Ipsos, immigration attitudes are now a litmus test for both parties.
Opposition is the sine qua non of Trumpism, which has singularly devoted itself to turning back the onward march of demographic and social change. And while openness to immigration is certainly a prerequisite for Democratic politics, because of the issue’s intractability and its capacity to mobilize conservatives, many center-left leaders avoid it altogether. Democrats made barely any effort to alter the nearly four-decade policy status quo when they had full control of Congress and the White House the previous two years, and zero prospects for action are on the horizon.
It’s time for immigration reform advocates to start over.
It won’t be easy, but new research shows that breaking the stalemate is possible. Doing so will require a fundamentally different approach for activists and their allies — one focused on addressing the concerns of the white, often working-class, skeptics while disarming the forces of nativism.
The polarization of immigration policy along party lines is the greatest barrier to compromise and progress in Washington.
When comprehensive immigration reforms were passed in 1986, immigration was a third-tier — not third-rail — issue, with truly bipartisan support and relatively little public interest. The debate was dull and technocratic.
But in the years since, a fledgling immigrant rights movement grew stronger, and it successfully built empathy among the American public by highlighting how immigrants enrich America.
In 1995, 65 percent of Americans wanted immigration to be decreased, 24 percent wanted to maintain present levels and 7 percent sought an increase. By the time Donald Trump ran for office in 2015, 35 percent of Americans preferred less immigration, 40 percent wanted to maintain present levels and 24 percent sought an increase — a remarkable flip.
The movement was emboldened as dozens of metropolitan areas declared themselves “sanctuary cities” or “welcoming communities,” and activists allied themselves with those pursuing racial and social justice in the country’s biggest cities. But backlash was brewing elsewhere.
With Trump’s 2016 election victory, immigrant rights activists discovered a powerful “intensity gap”: The majority of Americans who preferred to increase or maintain immigration levels held other priorities like health care, climate change or inequality. Meanwhile, for millions inside the Republican Party, immigrants were perceived as an existential threat and the need to curtail immigration became one of the most salient challenges facing America.
As inequality widened to new extremes and the country approached a “majority minority” demographic milestone, the distant prominence of immigrants made them convenient, darker-skinned scapegoats for white people on the peripheries of American society.
Republican lawmakers are loath to defy these voters, even when many recognize how critical immigration is for sustaining the U.S. population and its economic power.
Nativists’ lives were effectively unchanged after Trump’s four years leveraging the full power of the executive branch to dismantle the U.S. immigration system. But even if they acknowledged that fact, they won’t suddenly be convinced that immigration is desirable. Trump’s actions were symbolic in nature; they signaled to white Americans that they still held status, and that the rules that preserved their status would be followed.
And just when Trump overplayed his hand by separating children from their asylum-seeking families, many in the immigrant rights movement leaned into a campaign to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that peaked at only 25 percent support nationally, with much of the public equating it with lawlessness.
Most Americans fall between these two extremes, which is where we find ourselves today as Republicans condemn the threat of a surging, faceless horde and Democrats decry the inhumane circumstances that motivated their journeys. Few leaders are framing global migration as a normal, natural phenomenon that is ultimately in the common interest.
Emerging social science shows how cultural change is upstream from immigration policy change, not the other way around. Once we close the social distance between immigrants and the large share of America that still feels anxious or estranged by them, we can defeat the emotion-driven nativism impeding responsible policymaking.
Until now, movement advocates and researchers collected mountains of data to assuage skeptics and enumerate the unquestionable gains that human mobility brings to the United States. The labor. The jobs. The patents. The good citizenship. For heaven’s sake, the food. But in elevating the profiles of immigrants, they failed to account for the sense among many white working-class Americans that they were losing status in the country they once defined.
Advocates didn’t play defense. They didn’t reassure people discomfited by the country’s evolving demography. They didn’t validate the need for border control. Instead, too many dismissed tens of millions of conflicted and concerned voters as “racists” whose opinions didn’t matter — and who then became easy targets for far-right opportunists and their propaganda.
This social distance can be closed through outreach to voters that meets people where they are.
A broad review of 68 recent studies finds that persuasion on matters related to immigration is driven by “appealing to common interest rather than self-interest, appealing to conformity rather than diversity.”
In my own research, I find that hard opposition to migration starts to thaw when skeptics are presented with pro-immigration rhetoric on the nationalist terms that motivate them, and when they are addressed by leaders with whom they already identify.
Related research identifies the critical role that perceptions of “civic fairness” play in most Americans’ consideration of immigration policy debates.
The distance can also be closed through meaningful relationships developed in local neighborhoods and regions. Social science suggests the power of cultivating new forms of social connection to reduce the perception that immigrants threaten people’s status, power or culture.
Even though immigrants make up 14 percent of the American population, a historic high, about three quarters of Americans report not having a single meaningful relationship with an immigrant today.
Among nativists, it is common to hear that immigrants they personally know are not part of the greater threat they perceive. There are no “good” or “bad” immigrants, of course; there are just those who have forged relationships with native-born Americans and those who haven’t.
Only when we dismantle the thick boundaries between foreigners and the native-born will skeptics begin to appreciate the predicament of the immigrants arriving at the U.S. southern border, the heroics of the asylum program, the crucial importance of labor migration to cure America’s labor shortage. And only when that social distance narrows will the immigrant rights movement appreciate why so many Americans want an admissions process that is well managed and under control.
Immigration skeptics do not need to join the immigrant rights movement to meaningfully advance its mission. They just need to be a bulwark against the cancer of white nationalism, resistant to its divisive tactics for political mobilization.
In fact, policymaking on immigration would be far more likely if people were just less passionate about the issue altogether. We would do better to view it as a humdrum, managed process that ensured the country was attracting the best and the brightest, while staving off demographic aging. This wouldn’t mean technocracy without democracy, but rather an acknowledgment that — much like a favorite professional sports team — the country needs to recruit the most talented to compete.
And to be clear, many immigration skeptics are not white nationalists anyway. They are mostly white suburbanites exhausted by the back-and-forth between white nationalists and “woke” activists, neither of whom they trust. They are open to liberalizing the immigration system, especially for highly qualified applicants, and want to make it more humane, but they hesitate to reject Trumpism because they still want a sense that rules are being followed and that change isn’t happening too fast. Large swathes of them live in the metropolitan areas where many new immigrants are settling — Charleston, Charlotte, Columbus, Des Moines, Louisville, Nashville, Orlando — diversifying cities in red states with disproportionate Senate representation and House districts gerrymandered to favor white constituencies.
In any outreach, immigration reform advocates will ultimately have to overlook many views that they would not personally endorse. Still, they must find new ways to connect and highlight commonalities rather than differences. They need to communicate that they recognize skeptics as stakeholders too — their virtue, their dignity, their rights.
As activists have promoted the mobility and achievements of immigrants these past few decades, skeptics have clung more tightly to American “heritage” because it renders them a sense of status. It’s true that some of the accompanying nostalgia may subconsciously yearn for the white supremacy in America’s past, but much of it just comforts people uncertain about the country’s future and their precarious position in it. They have bigger problems than undocumented immigrants, and advocates can help them see that.
This is why it is critical that native-born white and working-class people appear in the movement’s vision hereafter — as neighbors, as co-workers, as stakeholders whose opinions matter. Surely, that is the truest form of inclusion, the pluralism upon which this country was founded.
There has been little pluralism in Washington for years. Three consecutive administrations have governed immigration through increasingly audacious executive orders. (In December 2021, rather than negotiate with conservatives, Democrats desperately — and unsuccessfully — tried to squeeze work authorization for undocumented immigrants into a budget bill.)
Make no mistake. I am proposing an overhaul, a total change in orientation, to the work of immigrant rights activists, advocates and the philanthropists who fund them.
The stalemate has lasted long enough. And a disorderly border for the coming months is only going to make matters worse — which, after the past 10 years of immigration politics, is saying something.