Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Immigration and political clout

By Claude Fischer


Two hot-button social issues seem to be moving to some sort of political resolution rather quickly. Their stories tell us something about the nature of attitudes Americans hold on such topics and also about the nature of American politics.

One issue is gay marriage. It appears that, whether de jure or de facto , most gays will be able to marry or to “marry” relatively soon. This outcome seems to be driven in great measure by strong shifts in public opinion. According to the General Social Survey, the percentage of American adults agreeing that “homosexual couples should have the right to marry” rose from 11 percent in 1988 to 49 percent in 2012, a strikingly rapid shift in public opinion.

Although young people and more liberal Americans are leading the cultural shift, this rush to accept gay couples is evident virtually across the board. (A recent Pew study shows the same.) Politicians are now tripping over one another to declare that they have “evolved” on this issue.

The other issue concerns undocumented immigrants. Most Washington observers are saying, as of this moment, that some reform is likely to come to fruition this spring. This political development, however, does not seem to be riding on a rushing wave of popular support.

Public opinion


A just-published paper by Christopher Muste ( gated ) compiles public opinion data on immigration over about the last 20 years. The general thrust of Americans’ attitudes remains largely negative toward immigration, any future immigrants, and undocumented immigrants currently within our borders. Survey organizations have asked several different questions on the topic. Overall, there has been little change in recent years.

The only major shift, recorded by the CBS/New York Times poll, was on a question asking whether “Overall, … recent immigrants …  contribute to this country, or do most of them cause problems?” Before 2000, about 50 percent said most cause problems and after 2000 about 30 percent did, but there’s been no further net change on this question since 2000. And that is the message we get from the other survey questions, as well: bits of fluctuation, but no surge, by any means, in favor of immigrants.

The chart below summarizes three of the questions analyzed in the Muste article. I added a fourth from the Pew organization.  The graph shows the percentage of respondents to each question who expressed an anti-immigrant or anti-undocumented immigrant attitude. (Item sources and question wording are in the notes at the end of the post.)


The blue and purple lines show a modest rise and then a modest fall in hostility. The blue is the percentage who say that immigration generally should be decreased and the purple is the percentage who say that immigrants are an economic burden. The red line shows essentially no change in the percentage who say that immigration is bad for the country. The short, green line represents the percentage who say that current “illegal immigrants” should have to leave their jobs and the U.S. Here we see negligible change, as well.

There has not been much change in Americans’ views. Perhaps Americans are a bit more positive since about 2005 about the idea of immigrants generally, but they remained as concerned about the burdens of immigrants and as hostile to undocumented ones as before. So, what explains the move toward immigration reform?


The answer, clearly, is the power of the Latino voting bloc. The election results of 2012 struck Republicans especially hard. It reaffirmed what Democrats had been saying – that Latino Americans will come out to vote, not exclusively but to a great degree, mobilized by the immigration issue. The fates of their family and friends who are undocumented at stake; even more deeply, a politician’s stance on the topic marks his or her respect for Latinos. (Recall Mitt Romney’s strong preference to have the undocumented “deport themselves.”)

Thus, the politics of immigration may have become like the politics of several other issues: the vital interests and passion of a numerical minority allows it to “own” the issue, because the group votes overwhelmingly, sometimes only, on that issue. Other such blocs are gun fanciers on registering firearms, farmers on keeping agricultural supports, and religious conservatives on restricting abortion. (For a general analysis of how public opinion does or does not affect legislative outcomes, see Paul Burstein here and forthcoming .) Energy plus focus times voting equals disproportionate political influence.

Of course, focused organization and money can also be effective, even when the number of voters are relatively few. Both, for example, allow the so-called one percent to have unusually strong leverage (see, for example, here and pdf ). But in this quite different case, the case of Latinos forcing movement on immigration reform, it is passion that owns the issue.


NOTES : Data sources: All the numbers are from Muste, except the Pew series.

Blue : Gallup, “Thinking about immigrants — that is, people who come from other countries to live here in the United States—in your view, should immigration be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased?”

Purple : Pew , Agree with “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care” rather than with “immigrants today strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents.”

Red: Gallup, “On the whole, do you think immigration is a good thing or a bad thing for this country today?”

Green: CBS/New York Times: “Which comes closest to your view about illegal immigrants who are currently working in the United States? 1. They should be allowed to stay in their jobs, and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship; OR 2. They should be allowed to stay in their jobs only as temporary guest workers, but NOT to apply for U.S. citizenship; OR 3. They should be required to leave their jobs and leave the United States.”

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history .