“So, whatever happened to immigration as a presidential campaign issue?,” Wall Street Journal editor Jason Riley asked in an interesting op-ed last week. He speculates that the candidates have been avoiding it because Americans are “basically pro-immigrant but conflicted about it,” and goes on to suggest that one reason many social conservatives want to seal the border is in reaction to multiculturalists who have attacked the traditional American ideal of assimilation.
The conventional wisdom about immigration is that it doesn’t decide elections, and I think the conventional wisdom will hold true this year, in part because Americans are conflicted generally, and in part because of the sharply opposed views of several of the particular constituencies McCain and Obama will be fighting over.
Although most Hispanics typically vote Democratic, they are a weak link in Obama’s coalition, which might tempt McCain to emphasize his previous efforts to push accommodationist immigration reform. But many Republicans, and many of the Reagan Democrats who are likely to be a major focus in the fall, are restrictionist on immigration, which will pull him in the opposite direction. Obama seems likely to face the same set of pressures.
I suspect that the most dynamic factor in the immigration debate in the coming years (this will be no surprise to anyone who has previously stumbled onto this blog) will be the relationship between religion and immigration. Evangelicalism is exploding in Latin America, which suggests that an increasing percentage of immigrants (both legal and illegal) are likely to be Protestant evangelicals, especially Pentacostals. Although American evangelicals are conflicted about immigration like everyone else, they tend to be somewhat more restrictionist than other groups, whereas secularists are more accommodationist. (In this 2006 Pew study, for instance, 64% of white evangelicals said immigrants are a burden, as compared with 52% of white mainline Protestants and 46% of secularists).
Immigration is an almost impossibly complicated issue, and there’s no way to predict what the future will bring. But the increasing percentage of Prostestant evangelical immigrants may cause evangelicals to become at least slightly more accommodationist over time. Who knows, multicultural secularists and social conservatives like evangelicals may meet somewhere in the middle, with some new approach to the immigration dilemma or some new compromise that none of us is thinking of now.