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Democrats aren’t driving radicalization on immigration

A recent Washington Post op-ed blames the wrong party.

- February 15, 2024
U.S.-Mexico border at Nogales, Arizona in February 2019 (cc) Ignatian Solidarity Network.

As the U.S. heads into the 2024 election cycle, immigration remains one of the most polarizing issues on America’s agenda. Public opinion on this issue shapes campaign strategies for Republican and Democratic candidates. And, ultimately, public opinion informs policies that impact millions of lives.

In January, Washington Post columnist Jason Willick cited our research about public opinion on immigration to claim that the conventional narrative about the “radicalization” of the Republican Party is wrong. According to Willick, Democrats – not Republicans – have “driven the partisan divorce,” the vast divide between the two parties on how to handle immigration. The result is a further polarization of U.S. attitudes toward immigration.

But Willick’s argument missed an important distinction between polarization and radicalization. Our research indeed shows that Republicans and Democrats have become more polarized in their immigration attitudes. This divergence has been driven largely by changes in Democrats’ attitudes since 2016.

The problem with Willick’s take is that Democrats’ views on immigration have not “radicalized.” Republicans are the ones with fairly extreme anti-immigration attitudes.

The Democratic shift in immigration attitudes

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Democrats and Republicans held similar views about immigration. Majorities within both parties opposed increasing immigration, were concerned about immigrants’ effects on the labor market, and had negative views of undocumented immigrants.

Beginning in 2012 and especially after 2016, opinions began to diverge. Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant message appeared to drive up Democratic support for immigration in particular, creating more distance between the parties. Such “reverse backlashes” have been observed in Europe when right-wing populists win elections. In the United States, Trump’s election in 2016 prompted a similar response among Democrats.

But the result is hardly “radical.” Today, most Democrats oppose banning refugees from entering the United States, and support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who were minors when they were brought to the U.S. Yet many Democrats also express reservations about immigrants’ impact on American jobs; do not support increasing immigration; and maintain lukewarm views of undocumented immigrants. The average Democrat is now an immigration moderate.

Radical immigration opinions prevail in the GOP

Democrats are not solely responsible for the partisan divorce, as Willick’s Post op-ed claims. Some of this polarization has come from Republican voters moving further right, as well. Since Biden’s election, Republicans have become much more supportive of curtailing immigration. Republicans’ views on immigration are also more central to their political outlook. They are more likely than Democrats to mention immigration as the most important problem facing the U.S. And January 2024 polls indicated that immigration and border security were central priorities of Republican caucus goers in Iowa this year.

Most important, truly radical views on immigration in the United States are concentrated among Trump’s core supporters. Our analysis of data from the American National Election Study finds that in 2020, among Republicans with highly favorable views of Donald Trump (the approximately one-third of Republicans who rate him at 100 on a feeling thermometer measure), 73% supported mass deportations and 54% supported a constitutional amendment to end birthright citizenship. Most Americans opposed Trump’s policies separating migrant children from their families. But only 51% of these especially pro-Trump Republicans opposed the policy, while 83% of other Americans did so.

In other words, on many immigration issues, pro-Trump Republicans are the ones out of step with popular opinion.

Why polarization can mean less radicalism, not more

Many political observers have warned of the perils of growing polarization in U.S. politics. Deep disagreements fuel distrust, prevent compromise, and undermine democratic norms.

Consensus alone, however, is not necessarily a good thing. A society in which most people have bigoted or xenophobic beliefs may not be polarized, despite being profoundly intolerant and antidemocratic. Indeed, marked periods of polarization in U.S. history – from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement – have been driven by efforts to achieve greater racial and ethnic equality in the face of significant resistance.

As in the past, opposition to immigration is part and parcel of a more general aversion to the country’s growing racial and ethnic diversity, and opposition to multiracial democracy. Many anti-immigration positions today – like banning refugees or preventing the U.S. Border Patrol from reaching the border where migrants drowned – are extreme.

Thus, when people oppose these extreme positions, the resulting polarization actually means less political radicalism and greater tolerance.

Ashley Jardina is an assistant professor of public policy at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.

Trent Ollerenshaw is a PhD candidate in political science at Duke University.