The sources of America’s immigration problems—and a possible solution

By Ron Unz | September 21, 2011

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An Anti-Immigration Backlash

Let us consider the political implications of these striking results. Since the large-scale presence of non-black non-whites—primarily Hispanic and Asian immigrant groups—does not seem to produce much white political cohesion along racial lines, the continued growth of these populations can hardly represent a potential boon for the Republican Party. Meanwhile, harsh Republican rhetoric or policies that target these groups would naturally tend to drive them into the arms of the Democrats. Under such a scenario, the GOP loses millions of non-white votes without gaining any white votes in exchange, resulting in political disaster.

A perfect example of this danger may be found in the recent political history of California, whose huge size and heavily immigrant population render it a useful testbed for the nation as a whole. During the four decades from 1950 to 1990, California supported the Republican presidential ticket almost without fail, going Democratic only during Lyndon Johnson’s unprecedented 1964 landslide. The state was considered as solidly Republican as Wyoming or Idaho, and the huge number of electoral votes it carried combined with the enormous expense of contesting them established it as the anchor of the GOP presidential strategy, leading to the widespread notion of a Republican “lock” on the White House.

Although Hispanic and Asian numbers had been growing steadily for years, their support for Republicans had been growing as well, and by the early 1990s, a GOP candidate could regularly expect to receive around one-third or more of the Hispanic vote and half that of the Asian. For example, Pete Wilson’s narrow 1990 gubernatorial victory over Dianne Feinstein, which significantly relied upon his criticism of “racial quotas,” was achieved with 53 percent of the white vote, 47 percent of the Hispanic vote, and 58 percent of the Asian vote according to the prestigious California Field Poll used by the New York Times, though others placed his ethnic totals lower.

But all of this permanently changed following Wilson’s harsh 1994 reelection campaign, whose television ads relentlessly scapegoated Hispanic immigrants for the state’s terrible economic woes. Although his words were carefully chosen in lawyerly fashion to distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants, his message was perceived very differently, and his loudest grassroots activist supporters certainly made no such distinction. Moreover, the resounding California Republican landslide that resulted soon emboldened the newly established Republican majorities in the U.S. House and Senate to focus on passing anti-immigration legislation, which thus placed legal Asian immigrants in the same political crosshairs.

As a direct consequence, Republican support sharply dropped among Hispanics and Asians and has never really recovered. Moreover, the immigration battle frightened and energized many traditionally apolitical Hispanics into finally naturalizing and registering, and during the 15 years that followed, their share of the state vote more than doubled to 22 percent, severely compounding the blow to Republican prospects.

The consequence was that gigantic California—almost as populous as Texas and New York combined—suddenly switched from being the strong anchor of every Republican national campaign to being the equally strong anchor of every Democratic one. In the years that followed, the large GOP congressional delegation was decimated and the powerful state Republican Party, which had once propelled Nixon and Reagan to national leadership, was reduced to near irrelevance.

Consider the interesting case of Howard Ahmanson, long one of California’s wealthiest politically-active Evangelical Christians and during the early 1990s routinely described by the media as a central pillar of the Christian Right within the Republican Party. In a prescient 1993 letter to Commentary, he warned of the rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment in conservative circles and expressed a concern that Republicans would “doom themselves” if they drove away these socially conservative voters, perhaps losing them for generations, just as previous Republicans had done with Italian and Irish immigrants a century earlier. The California Republicans completely ignored his warning, with the political consequences already noted.

In Ahmanson’s opinion, today’s California GOP has shrunk to the point where it now represents only the most dogmatically taxophobic elements of the state. Meanwhile, the Democrats have expanded so much that they usually incorporate both sides of almost every political divide: business and labor, whites and non-whites, the rich and the poor, liberals and conservatives. This inclusiveness certainly extends to the staunchest socially conservative voters, since it was the overwhelming support of California non-whites that defeated gay marriage at the ballot box in 2008. And these days Howard Ahmanson is a registered Democrat.

There is no logical contradiction between the powerful backlash of California whites against immigrants 20 years ago and the apparent lack of such political sentiments today. In the early 1990s, the state’s demographics had just undergone a period of very rapid change, and middle-class whites were naturally fearful and alarmed about the consequences of these changes and the possible behavior of so many millions of new immigrants from such different backgrounds, especially in the immediate aftermath of the deadly Rodney King riots. This left them easy targets for political demagoguery. But after a few years had gone by, most whites concluded that their new neighbors seemed like pretty reasonable people, not too different from themselves, and racial concerns dropped to the lower levels of most public opinion surveys, usually ranking below jobs, housing, healthcare, and sometimes even traffic.

Similarly, most Hispanic and Asian newcomers have developed perfectly amicable relations with their white counterparts, but still remain deeply suspicious of the Republican Party, whose leaders had spent several years defaming and attacking them. Such ethnic suspicions might occasionally be overcome by a particularly unusual Republican candidate, as we saw in the case of worldwide film superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger—himself a heavily-accented foreign immigrant—who managed to win a couple of landslide victories. But they proved enormous barriers to more typical Republican candidates, who began each statewide campaign with what amounted to an automatic ten or 15-point deficit at the polls and almost invariably lost as a result.

This can be seen in the details of the most recent California election cycle. As the only statewide Republican officeholder and a wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner was assumed to have a lock on his party’s gubernatorial nomination and naturally attracted the support of all major segments of the GOP apparatus. But then former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, an utter political neophyte but with a billion-dollar fortune, decided to enter the race and immediately became the darling of the party’s mercenary establishment, given the bottomless funds she promised to spend on her campaign. Outmatched financially, Poizner was forced to refocus on right-wing primary voters, and as a highly opportunistic fellow, he decided to ride the national tidal wave of anti-immigration fears then sweeping across the country and make it the centerpiece of his campaign, eventually spending $25 million of his own money on the effort.

The result was that he lost the primary by 40 points. When you run as an immigration hard-liner, spend $25 million on your race, and lose by 40 points among the hard-core conservatives who dominate Republican primaries, you’re clearly selling the dog food that dogs just won’t eat. These days, anti-immigration candidacies in California possess about as much resonance as anti-papist candidacies in Massachusetts.

Afterwards, Whitman went on to spend an astonishing $180 million in her campaign, nearly all of it her own money, and in a year featuring an enormous national backlash against career politicians lost in a landslide to former Governor Jerry Brown, who had almost continuously been an elected official or a political candidate for the previous 45 years. Meanwhile, the best nationwide year for Republicans in two decades saw their California party lose every statewide race, mostly by wide margins. Such is the dismal political legacy that Pete Wilson bequeathed to his most unfortunate local successors.

•   •   •

Now consider the likely political future of a state such as Arizona, ground zero of the most recent national anti-immigrant backlash by nervous whites. A severe recession and rapidly changing demographics had alarmed Arizona voters, many of them elderly retirees from elsewhere, leaving them vulnerable to wild rumors of a huge immigrant crime wave, including beheadings and kidnappings, almost all of which was complete nonsense. As a result, harsh anti-immigrant measures were passed into law, and their mostly Republican supporters won sweeping victories among an electorate that is today roughly 80 percent white.

But buried near the bottom of a single one of the innumerable New York Times articles analyzing Arizona politics was the seemingly minor and irrelevant fact that almost half of all Arizona schoolchildren are now Hispanic. Meanwhile, according to Census data, over 80 percent of Arizonans aged 65 or older are white. A decade or more from now it seems likely that Arizona whites and Hispanics will enjoy perfectly good relations, and the former will have long since forgotten their current “immigrant scare.” But the latter will still remember it, and the once mighty Arizona Republican Party will be set on the road to oblivion.

Even in a rock-solid Deep South Republican state like Georgia, Hispanics have now grown into a remarkable 10 percent of the population, up from almost nothing in the early 1990s, and represent an even larger share of younger Georgians. So unless the local Republican Party can somehow greatly enhance its appeal to the 30 percent of Georgians who are black, the current wave of anti-immigrant legislation may prove highly problematical ten or 20 years down the road.

This pattern highlights a central dilemma faced by today’s Republican leadership. In states or regions experiencing heavy waves of non-white immigration, the party’s white conservative base tends to grow alarmed, and any particular spark—an economic downturn, a brutal crime widely publicized by the media—can lead to an explosion of racial hostility. At that point, thoughtful Republican candidates are faced with the choice of either following this populist appeal to immediate victory, often attracting the crossover support of large numbers of Democratic or independent voters in the process, or gritting their teeth and opposing it.

If they take the former approach, temporary electoral victories, no matter how sweeping, almost invariably become long-term disasters in political alignment. But if they take the latter stance, they sacrifice the sort of immediate opportunities that tend to figure very high in the minds of most politicians, and even risk losing primaries to harder-line rivals with shorter horizons or fewer scruples.

Since the Democratic Party is already so heavily influenced at the national level by non-white voters and pro-immigrant activists, local Democrats possess little leeway on this sort of issue, and any candidates who might consider adopting a populist anti-immigrant platform would quickly find themselves blacklisted by the party leadership, quite possibly becoming Republicans at the end of a bitter ideological divorce.

But when we consider the case of California and the numerous other states that now appear to be following along that same demographic trajectory, certainly including the Republican anchor state of Texas in which whites recently became a minority, today’s high levels of immigration seem to be forcing the Republicans into a very difficult strategic position, not necessarily over the next five or six years, but over the next ten or 20. Is there any way they can somehow escape this racial trap, perhaps by curtailing immigration? Moreover, can such a proposal be justified on anything other than political grounds?

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