Amid the humanitarian crisis at the Texas border, elected officials are producing a spectacle of political posturing. All the familiar remedies for our immigration fiasco are on view, their proponents hoping to turn the plight of Central American migrants to their temporary political advantage.
As we sort through this haze of tragedy and farce, we should not forget that what is at stake is not only the fate of the desperate migrants or which politicians score the most points with voters. The border crisis is an especially fraught episode in the long battle for control over the electoral uses of immigration policy. These include a more profound issue than simply advocating policies designed to win votes. Except for election law and redistricting, immigration is the only public policy that directly affects the partisan complexion of the electorate itself. Parties are not limited to campaigning for support among the existing voting public. They have the power to change the electorate to suit their purposes.
Demography is destiny for nations. In democracies, the electoral success of political parties depends on how well they adapt to changes in the composition of the electorate. Mass immigration is the long-term driver of demographic change. Who controls immigration policy controls the demography of the electorate and, hence, the government.
The connection between immigration and elections is hardly lost on the political class, but in public they behave as if demographic changes are Acts of God beyond their control. They are not. The manipulation of immigration policy to foster demographic change favorable to one’s party is the dirty little secret of immigration politics.
Immigration policy has always shaped the fortunes of the political parties, but rarely as obviously as after 1965. Legislation that year increased annual admissions and revised the rules governing eligibility for visas. The share of immigrants from Europe plummeted while entries from Latin America, Asia and other regions surged. More than 18 million gained legal admission in the 30 years after 1965. Millions of illegal immigrants also entered.
This altered American demography beyond recognition. A much more homogeneous society in the 1950s, the U.S. today is experiencing an immense, rapid and unprecedented transformation. The cultural dominance of persons of European backgrounds is fading as that group ages. By midcentury, no group will constitute a majority.
We should embrace this new diversity cautiously, not because displacing Americans of European lineage is necessarily undesirable, but because whichever ethnic groups are ascendant in the years ahead, America will be a different country. All countries change, but most demographic changes take place over many generations. Our transformation has transpired nearly over night and is the direct result of public policy.
No one predicted this in 1965. Whether the complacent assurances that nothing important was in the works were an honest mistake or a deliberate misrepresentation, the politicians of the day were complicit in an appalling failure of democratic governance. Long after all could see that an unexpected social transformation of epic proportions was underway, few officials expressed second thoughts, and subsequent laws accelerated the pace of change.
We have embarked on a risky social experiment to see whether Americans can build a successful multicultural society where others have failed. Amazingly, Americans have never had a meaningful opportunity to give or withhold their consent, nor has there been a serious accounting of the certain and potential consequences of this venture.
Hispanics are at the leading edge of the demographic transition. They will inevitably surpass European Americans as the nation’s largest ethnic group. The only question is which party they will support and what immigration policy the lucky recipient of their votes will devise.
Whatever the mix of compromises that finally emerges out of this turmoil, the real issue for the parties is the impact of reform on future outcomes in the Electoral College. The protracted stalemate in Washington is the visible evidence of a deeper struggle between Democrats and Republicans over the coming ethnic and partisan makeup of the American electorate.
Gary Freeman is a professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin who is an expert on the politics of immigration.