Are Republicans Taking a Gamble Supporting Trump on Immigration?

Immigrants in the United States are slowly moving from big-city melting pots into traditionally GOP territory—posing an electoral challenge to lawmakers who haven’t opposed the president’s policies.

David Ryder / Reuters

It’s quickly become a familiar arc in the volatile Donald Trump presidency. First, Trump issues a policy declaration that triggers massive protests in major cities. Then reporters descend on smaller places where they find Trump supporters who say they don’t understand what all the fuss is about.

That geographic juxtaposition of Trump’s defenders and detractors oversimplifies the dynamic following last weekend’s eruption against his executive order, which indefinitely bars Syrian refugees, temporarily suspends all other refugees, and temporarily bars citizens from seven Muslim-majority nations from entering the country. The huge crowds that mobilized against the order—just eight days after millions turned out for the women’s marches against Trump—gathered not only in coastal Democratic bastions like Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle, but also in interior cities like Kansas City, Nashville, and Boise.

Yet the gulf between metro and non-urban America is real and widening. That chasm shaped 2016 results, with Hillary Clinton winning 88 of the country’s 100 most populous counties, and Trump carrying about 2,600 of the other 3,000. The unmistakable signal of Trump’s first weeks is that his governing agenda will further divide the racially diversifying urban centers increasingly integrated into a globalizing information-age economy from the smaller places that feel excluded, if not threatened, by each of those changes. It’s transformation against restoration.

The divide over Trump’s protectionist trade agenda provides one measure of that split. But no issue presses at this fault line more powerfully than immigration. Today, his executive order is generating the shockwaves. But Trump’s determination to build a border wall with Mexico, his exploration of new limits on legal immigration, and his (underreported) push to intensify the deportation of undocumented immigrants are likely to spark increasing resistance over time—as would any move against the so-called “dreamers,” who were illegally brought to the United States as children.

Immigration remains an important boundary line between the “two Americas” the parties now represent. Nationwide, people born abroad now constitute over 13 percent of the total population—the most since 1910. But in both congressional and presidential elections, Republicans still rely mostly on the parts of the United States least touched by these changes. That’s one reason why, despite some defection primarily from legislators in swing states, Trump has avoided a full-scale revolt against his executive order from congressional Republicans, especially in the House.

In the House, nearly 85 percent of Republicans represent districts where the foreign-born share of the population lags below the national average, according to calculations from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey by my colleague Leah Askarinam. By contrast, over 60 percent of House Democrats represent districts where the foreign-born population exceeds the national average. In the Senate, Democrats hold most of the seats in the 20 states with the highest share of foreign-born residents—32 out of 40. Republicans hold 44 of the 60 seats in the 30 states with the fewest.

Similarly, Clinton won 16 of the 20 states where immigrants represent the largest population share; Trump won 26 of the 30 where they represent the smallest share. Of the 100 House districts with the smallest share of foreign-born residents, Trump won 91 and congressional Republicans hold 87. Of the 100 districts with the largest share, Clinton won 94 and congressional Democrats hold 85.

These contrasts all follow the broader measures of demographic divergence between the parties in Congress. The districts with big immigrant populations also tend to have larger-than-average numbers of college-educated whites and minorities, whether native- or foreign-born. Seats with those characteristics are the foundation of the Democratic House coalition. Conversely, the preponderantly white, heavily blue-collar, and often non-urban districts that underpin the House Republican majority almost all have fewer immigrants than average.

Today these patterns favor Republicans because immigrants—like the overall minority population and white college graduates—are concentrated in fewer districts, mostly in urban areas. But each of those three groups is steadily growing as a share of the total population. Immigrants, and minorities more generally, continue to diffuse into new communities beyond the traditional big-city melting pots; dozens of mid-sized heartland cities are now actively recruiting immigrants to reverse population and economic decline.

Over time that diaspora may change the calculus for Hill Republicans who now feel little incentive to question Trump’s immigration offensive. Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, has spent the last several years carefully building support for immigration reform in red communities among law enforcement, religious leaders, and business executives, an experience he recounts in his compelling upcoming book, There Goes The Neighborhood.

Noorani acknowledges that few congressional Republicans represent communities that today feel directly threatened by Trump’s immigration hard line. “At this moment in time, they remain isolated from the [foreign-born growth],” he said. “But I would argue that the rate of change in the foreign-born population in [many of] these districts is faster than what we are seeing in other parts of the country. The bubble is going to pop in the very near future.”

The appeal of Trump’s brusque economic nationalism to blue-collar whites, especially in the Rustbelt, will challenge Democrats to make gains that offset his. That will raise the pressure on Democrats, both in presidential and congressional races, to make breakthroughs in metropolitan centers less receptive to Trump’s insular agenda, particularly across the Sunbelt. But the Hill Republicans who are embracing Trump’s defensive nationalism on immigration and trade face their own challenge. They are implicitly wagering they can continue to barricade themselves into districts sealed against a society growing more diverse demographically and globalized economically. If that gamble fails, the literal and symbolic walls against the world that Trump is constructing could prove a tomb for the Republican majorities in Congress.

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