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Republicans’ hard-line stance on immigration may alienate millennials for years

- December 3, 2018

In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, President Trump doubled down on the restrictive immigration positions that fueled his 2016 presidential campaign. The last few weeks of the campaign, he repeatedly warned Americans about the migrant caravan headed to the United States from Central America, and advocated for the repeal of birthright citizenship. Trump hoped to mobilize Republican voters, thereby helping to elect Republican candidates. Especially in the Senate, this may have helped Republicans gain two seats.

But in the long term, Trump’s anti-immigration approach may alienate millennial voters — and backfire on the Republican Party. The millennial generation, born between 1980 and 1997, is the largest and most diverse adult cohort.

In the midterms, majorities of millennials voted for Democrats. That’s a troubling sign for Republicans

Almost 7 in 10 voters (67 percent) ages 18 to 29, and nearly 6 in 10 (58 percent) of those ages 30 to 44, supported Democratic candidates. That’s mostly the millennial generation. Researchers who study party identification suggest that it’s “sticky” — that the party you vote for in your first few elections tends to harden and become your party for life.

And while a number of issues probably contributed to their votes, their liberal attitudes on immigration may be important.

Demographics are against the long-term success of hard-line immigration policies

The millennial generation is the most diverse adult generation in U.S. history. Hispanics make up 21 percent of all U.S. millennials. My research shows that this diversity contributes to their more progressive and tolerant attitudes toward immigration, compared with older adults.

In my book “The Politics of Millennials,” co-authored with Ashley Ross, we conducted a survey in late 2015 to gauge the generation’s attitudes toward immigrants. The online survey of 1,251 Americans (including an oversample of 621 millennials) was fielded by Qualtrics, with quotas used to make the sample nationally representative. The survey matched U.S. Census figures for gender, race/ethnicity and region, and a weight was employed to calibrate sample so that it equals the general population of age groups.

Across a variety of measures, we found millennials to be significantly more favorable toward immigrants and immigration than older Americans. For instance, one item asked respondents whether they thought immigrants “strengthened the diversity of the country” or “threatened traditional American values.” Among millennials, 52 percent said immigrants strengthened the country’s diversity, while 48 percent said they threatened the country’s values. Among non-millennials, those numbers were 41 and 59 percent, respectively.

We found similar divides when we asked respondents whether immigrants “only take jobs Americans do not want to do” or whether they “take jobs away from Americans.” Fifty-nine percent of millennials gave the pro-immigrant response, while just 49 percent of non-millennials did. Likewise, 45 percent of millennials said illegal immigrants did not threaten the nation’s security, compared with 33 percent of non-millennials.

Millennials, of course, are not monolithic, and differences on immigration attitudes exist across race and ethnic subgroups. To assess these differences, in the same Qualtrics survey, we asked white non-Hispanic, Hispanic and African American millennials to indicate how much they support or are likely to support four immigration policies:

  1. Require that all companies verify the legal status of workers before employing them — a policy known as E-Verify.
  2. Strengthen border security and extend wall or fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
  3. Allow undocumented childhood arrivals under age 30 to stay in the United States.
  4. Allow in-state tuition and fees at state universities for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.

The figure below displays the mean values of millennial subgroups’ average support for the four immigration policies, from 0 (no support) to 4 (a lot of support).

Number of respondents for each subgroup: White non-Hispanic = 335, African Americans = 106, Hispanics = 158.

As you can see, these three racial/ethnic subgroups hold some different opinions on immigration policies. Hispanics are less likely to support E-Verify and border security measures than are white non-Hispanic and African American millennials.

What’s more, Hispanic millennials are significantly more likely than either white non-Hispanic or African American millennials to support allowing undocumented children to stay in the country. And while African American and Hispanic millennials convey similar levels of average support for in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, white non-Hispanic millennials aren’t as supportive overall.

On every measure, millennials are more pro-immigrant than non-millennials

Ross and I also show that millennials were quite tolerant toward immigrants even in 2008, at the height of the Great Recession — despite the fact that this group was disproportionately hurt by the economic downturn and might have been expected to resent immigrants for allegedly taking “their’” jobs.

In 2016, Trump rode a hard-line immigration posture all the way to the White House. Since then, many Republican elected officials have embraced this stand as a winning platform.

However, if millennials continue to have more liberal and tolerant attitudes toward immigration, this stance may hurt the Republican Party over the long term.

Stella M. Rouse (@Stella_Rouse) is an associate professor of government and politics and director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland, and co-author (with Ashley Ross) of “The Politics of Millennials” (University of Michigan Press, 2018).