American Sociological Association

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A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
September-November 2020

Immigration and the 2020 Election

Roger Waldinger, Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for the Study of International Migration, University of California-Los Angeles

Roger Waldinger

Roger Waldinger

From the moment that Donald Trump descended to the lobby of Trump Tower to launch his 2016 presidential campaign with a screed against Mexican immigrants, migration, and mobility control have powered an ever-greater political storm. For America’s immigrants, the 2016 presidential election produced a disaster that began on Election Day and has worsened ever since. The Trump administration has found the key to unlocking the immigration stalemate that bedeviled its predecessors, yielding a profound transformation likely to irrevocably change the face of U.S. immigration, regardless of November 2020’s election outcome. 

While the circumstances that brought Trump to the White House and propelled his drive to close U.S. borders have distinctively American roots, migration has been a polarizing issue throughout the developed world. Migration is good for the migrants, which is why global polls show that millions would migrate if they only had a chance. Those leaving developing for developed countries make their way to wealthier societies where everyday security is taken for granted, the rule of law is observed, elections are generally honest, and prosperity yields public goods and a safety net that help compensate for the material shortcomings of the deprived.

Though migrants’ search for the better life has made the past half-century the age of migration, that quest has unfolded in a world of migration control. The developed world has pursued a common set of conflicting goals: accommodating to the desired mobility generated by globalization, while discouraging most potential emigrants from leaving home; bending to business demand for labor, while instituting policies that reserve permanent settlement for the wanted; sorting foreigners in ways that yield a proliferation of legal statuses, from the tolerated but unauthorized to those lucky enough to eventually gain citizenship. 

In fostering and constraining migration, states have also sowed the seeds of conflict: while migration exceeds the levels that receiving country nationals are prepared to accept, the newcomers, whether wanted or not, change the societies where they settle. Since migrants gain the capacity to help friends and relatives left behind, migration also stimulates further migration. Meanwhile, intensified efforts at migration control trigger outrage among humanitarians and migrant advocates without quelling discontent among the forces clamoring for still greater restriction. Hence, throughout the developed world, migration fosters political cleavage. Since almost all political actors concede that migration should be controlled, the contest fundamentally favors proponents of a tougher line. 

The Politics of Immigration

In the United States, the politics of migration moved from sidelines to center over a half-century. Initially, migration had little political salience as it was concentrated in a narrow band of states and of interest mainly to immediate beneficiaries: employers wanting foreign labor, high- and low-skilled; ethnic groups and human rights activists with an affinity for immigrants and the multiculturalism they produced. Though located at opposing ends of the political spectrum, these strange bedfellows found periodic bipartisan grounds for agreement in policies that produced more expansion than voters wanted. Simultaneously, their inherent differences made for policy inconsistency. The result: long-standing divergence between policy on the books—prohibiting the entrance and employment of unauthorized migrants—and policy in action—which took a hands-off approach to employers’ behavior and so accommodated to those very same practices.

As immigrant numbers grew, along with conflicts over the vulnerabilities they experienced and the protections and rights that they sought, political entrepreneurs on the right discovered that mobilizing anti-immigrant sentiment could win elections. Immigration also gained growing media attention, which fomented anxiety among white voters. In turn, as conservative Republican populists broke with the business-oriented wing of the party favoring expanded immigration, they found that anti-immigrant appeals changed partisan identities among whites, transforming erstwhile Democrats into Republicans. Trump exploited this, with the result that one month after he entered the race, almost 70$ of Republicans thought that his statement about Mexican immigrants being rapists who bring drugs and crime into the country was “basically right.” Among whites who had voted for Obama in 2008, that same rhetoric captured the loyalties of those who were out of sync with the Democratic mainstream.

Republican anti-immigrant politics pushed the voters produced by immigration into the Democratic camp, a current including Muslims, Asian Americans, and Latinos whose partisan loyalties had previously been up for grabs. According to a 2019 national survey conducted by the Voter Study Group, people of color comprised over 40% of registered Democrats, as opposed to only 17% among registered Republicans. Along with the changing political demography came a similarly aligned set of elected officials, as the new voters pulled the levers for Democrats who were descriptively representative of their electoral base. 

The politics of immigration fed into and deepened existing political and cultural cleavages. As both parties advanced towards increasingly divergent stances on immigration, divisions accentuated political polarization. In 2016, by contrasting so starkly on immigration, Clinton and Trump gave the issue greater salience and widened the partisan cleavage. Thus, while Republicans moved right, with business, pro-immigration voices stilled, Democrats moved left. That shift partially reflects the spillover from immigration to immigration politics; equally important is polarization among white voters, making attitudes of white Democrats and Republicans increasingly divergent. As partisan identity and immigration attitudes became intertwined, inter-group differences among Democrats have largely disappeared.

These partisan tensions generated the policy incoherence of the Obama years. In the early 2000s, the strange bedfellow coalition linking right and left had re-emerged around support for “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” or CIR — omnibus legislation to legalize the unauthorized population and restructure the entire immigration system, overhauling permanent and temporary legal migration. First sidelined by post-9/11 security frenzy, CIR rose and fell in the later G.W. Bush years, as the pro-immigration, business expansionist President was too weakened to command Republican votes. Entering office committed to CIR, Obama opted to postpone action until his second term, at which time CIR suffered the same dismal fate. 

Meanwhile his administration intensified enforcement both at the U.S.-Mexico border and internally. As compensation, Obama used executive powers to implement DACA, making life better for roughly 800,000 unauthorized migrants who had entered the United States as children, but without a permanent fix and leaving the great bulk of the unauthorized population unprotected. Yet when Central American families and unaccompanied children appeared at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Obama administration showed the punitive face of the state. Thus, a liberal Democratic government provided subsidies to Mexico and Guatemala to deport Central Americans en route to the United States, funded new family detention facilities at an unprecedented scale, and impeded Central Americans from applying for asylum by giving courts such strict deadlines that attorneys frequently lacked the time to collect evidence they needed. 

Entering office without serious intra-party disagreement and hence with carte blanche to roll back immigration in ways previously thought unimaginable, Trump hit immigrants with a blitzkrieg, relying on executive powers alone. Since assuming office, President Trump made more than 20,000 false or misleading claims about immigration, for an average of over 15 statements per day. Language has not been the only tool in the transformation wrought by Trump and his staff. Indeed, over 400 new draconian immigration policies have been introduced in the past four years. The virtually non-stop attacks on all categories of immigrants has exhausted immigration advocates who, despite filing new lawsuits almost every week, have failed to stem the exclusionary tide. 

The administration periodically misfired. Right after Trump’s inauguration, his administration banned the entry of all persons from seven Muslim-majority countries, causing chaos at U.S. airports and a torrent of bad publicity. However, multiple legal challenges, initially successful, met defeat when the Supreme Court affirmed a revised version of the travel ban. Faced with a resurgence of families fleeing violence in Central America in 2018, the administration responded with force, separating children from parents, but the enormous public outcry forced Trump to relent. Yet that failure led to new, even harsher measures, most importantly the Migrant Protection Protocols, which essentially closed the U.S.-Mexico border to asylum applicants.

Trump then instrumentalized the COVID-19 pandemic in pursuit of his anti-immigrant agenda, while utterly failing to stem the disease. Nonetheless, the administration had cleared many roadblocks before COVID-19 hit, dropping the hammer on the most vulnerable targets — asylum seekers, persons in deportation hearings, refugees waiting for admission — while tightening the squeeze on persons in the legal immigration stream. Thus, without a single piece of new legislation, the number of non-citizens residing in the United States and applications for green cards dropped.

Restriction was so effectively implemented because it stood on a pre-existing structure of global migration control. Any administration enjoys ample discretion for delimiting options available to non-citizens, without ever asking for Congress’ permission; Trump exploited those opportunities to the max. In a system described as “remote control,” Washington simply sent a signal to consulates and their behavior changed, whether via enhanced vetting or limiting the period for which temporary visas are valid. Most vulnerable were the undocumented —roughly half of all non-citizens; broadening the population at risk of deportation and cracking down on sanctuary cities did much to raise anxiety. Increasing the number of forms required to renew a visa, insisting on a face-to-face interview in lieu of submission of documents, or placing applicants for naturalization under greater scrutiny, the administration also used its available tools to go after persons with an authorized presence. And since every status change comes with a fee, the administration has scheduled substantial across-the-board increases -- with the added result of discouraging naturalization.

A Better Future?

Zero immigration is beyond Trump’s powers, but a second Trump administration would likely keep arrivals highly constrained. Biden has promised to undo Trump’s draconian changes. Not only is the task monumental, given the administration’s 400-plus reforms, but history warrants skepticism as recent past administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, recurrently turned “tough” on immigration. Thanks to the greater divisiveness fostered by Trump, which has radicalized the Republican electorate, achieving consensus on immigration reform that satisfies the increasingly divergent right and left will likely prove elusive.

However, the environment would be different: As rank-and-file views have moved left, Democratic voices once advocating a hard line on enforcement have grown silent. Advocacy groups organizing to challenge Trump-era reforms have seen increased support from concerned citizens. The Democrats’ electoral base, which has shifted strongly in favor of rights expansion, may no longer be willing to condone punitive policies that previous administrations accepted.

Biden would face one immediate practical hurdle: how to clean up the mess caused first by Obama and now Trump in trying to close the door to Central American asylum seekers. Immigration courts face a backlog of more than a million asylum applicants. Biden’s proposed solution — hiring more asylum officers to adjudicate all pending claims — may do the trick, relieving the overwhelmed dockets of immigration judges who are effectively forced to decide on death penalty cases in a traffic-court setting. 

Reversing Trump’s most egregious acts, such as the attack on DACA, would be a major step forward. A Biden administration would then have to navigate the shoals on which the Obama administration foundered. With a new administration, the left would likely clamor for rights expansion and may be less willing than were advocates a decade ago to accept a delayed legalization of the undocumented. Business expansionists will want to ramp up migration of high-skilled workers and expand the temporary circulation of low-skilled migrants, a policy always problematic for the left. To date, finding a way to marry right and left wings of the pro-immigration coalition has only led to disaster. As compared to CIR, beginning with such smaller bites as providing permanent residence to DACA recipients and their parents would have greater public support. Yet, this reform, leaving millions of persons in unauthorized status and vulnerable to deportation, may lack political legs.

Of course, eliminating COVID-19 will be the first priority; as long as the pandemic rages, global experience shows, borders will be slow to fully re-open. Hence, the years lost to political stalemate will likely continue, yielding a significant hit to reform possibilities since an administration’s political capital diminishes with time. While even a modest rollback of Trump’s policies will bring much relief to immigrants who have borne the brunt of his attacks, the fundamental dilemma will persist long after November. Migration is good for migrants. But their preferred countries of destination are only willing to accept a small fraction of those ready to leave their homes. Hence, migrants and their advocates can expect continuing tragedy and heartbreak — regardless of who occupies the White House in January. 

Any opinions expressed in the articles in this publication are those of the authors and not the American Sociological Association.