Why Immigration Is the Sleeper Issue for 2012

As racial divides subside, voters worry about illegal aliens

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If you follow the national debate in Washington -- or, worse, on cable television -- it is easy to suppose that voters base their political decisions on anger over the deficit or the prospect of Medicare privatization or some idiot congressman's proclivity for texting racy pictures of himself to women. But that isn't necessarily so. Those decisions and the factors underlying them often have deeper causes.

A good illustration comes via the latest Allstate-National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll [pdf], which examined how people of different races view the country's rapidly changing demographics and how these views shape their outlook on the economy. It strongly suggests that, while Washington may be ignoring it, illegal immigration has become a central and divisive force in American politics, and could have major implications for the next election.

First, some background. The 2010 US Census showed large increases in the minority population relative to the one before. Whites accounted for only 8 percent of the population growth. Today, minorities comprise more than 36 percent of the entire nation, and nearly half of all Americans under 18. The United States is on track to become "majority-minority'' around 2040.

For a country undergoing such sweeping changes, the poll contains plenty of encouraging news. Attitudes among different racial groups are converging: White and minority Americans largely agree on the benefits of a free-market society, on the importance of education and individual effort in getting ahead, and on the idea that we are making real progress toward equal opportunities for all.

Remarkably, only 2 percent of respondents said racial or ethnic background was the most important determinant of economic success. One of the most pernicious divisions in American history, that between whites and blacks, appears to be dissolving.

And yet Americans are troubled by the growing number of minorities. For many Americans, the old division between blacks and whites has been replaced by a new division between native-born citizens and immigrants. This is most apparent in the stark difference in economic outlook between whites and minorities (particularly Asians and Hispanics). Whites are far more pessimistic about their prospects and their children's prospects -- and many mistakenly believe that illegal immigrants are the primary culprit.

Asked what they thought was causing the minority boom, 53 percent of whites said illegal immigration, 29 percent said higher birth rates, and 11 percent said legal immigration. "That has it almost exactly backward,'' said Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. Since 2000, Passel says, there have been 19.3 million minority births, 8.4 million legal immigrants, and 5.6 million undocumented immigrants.

This widespread misconception stems from a lack of information that's largely due to both the Democratic and Republican parties' unwillingness to pursue immigration reform, after years of failed attempts.

These numbers appear to be driven by two things, said Brent McGoldrick of Financial Dynamics, which conducted the poll. The aftershocks of the immigration debate, which was never really resolved, but still permeates how people look at the economy and the future of the country; and the bad economy, which has made whites feel particularly pessimistic and sharpened these attitudes.

The political effects of these aftershocks show up in the differing attitudes toward government. Minorities, especially African-Americans, have a positive view of government and prefer that it play an active role in the economy. Whites are more critical of government activism and tend to favor the private sector. These views correlate strongly with party preference. They suggest that minorities will tend to vote Democratic (the party of government), while whites are likely to vote Republican (the party of free markets). The upcoming presidential election seems tailor-made to highlight these differences.

As the country still struggles to emerge from recession, the poll indicates, rather ominously, that ideas about how best to do so break down by race. The shame of it all is that while economic growth is the surefire way to mitigate these tensions -- a rising tide lifts all boats -- agreeing on how best to bring it about will be hard, and harder still because a major source of the dispute is neither being acknowledged nor addressed in Washington.

Joshua Green writes a weekly column for the Boston Globe.

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