Laura Ingraham’s Poor Response to George Will on Immigration

Radio talk show host Laura Ingraham recently penned a criticism of an excellent column written by George Will about immigration.  Although George Will is more than capable of defending himself, I thought I should step in and push back against many of Ingraham’s points.

The first two arguments made by Ingraham respond to practical political concerns – the midterm elections in 2014:

Will claims that the GOP should not focus its arguments in 2014 solely on Obamacare. I agree, and so do other conservative opponents of immigration reform. But that hardly proves that we will benefit politically from giving in to the president on his top priority and yielding a huge political victory to the Democrats that will boost their morale and devastate many people in our base.

Will maintains that if the GOP enforces unanimity on major issues, it will not grow. GOP supporters of reform are not being silenced or pushed out of the party. And, again, I don’t see the political benefits of siding with the president and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) against the conservative base on such a vital issue. The easiest way for the GOP to do very poorly in 2014 would be for its base to stay home, and that is more likely to happen if conservative voters watch the GOP cooperate with the president on immigration.”

Many Republicans are looking at polling data, months in advance, and counting their electoral chickens before they hatch.  The train wreck of Obamacare will likely help Republicans in the 2014 elections.  I’m not a political strategist so I won’t comment on Ingraham’s or Will’s arguments about that.  Ingraham, however, misleadingly leaves off the name of prominent conservative Republicans who support immigration reform, namely Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ).  It is true that President Obama and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) support immigration reform, but excluding conservative backers makes the bipartisan reform effort appear entirely Democratic – which it isn’t.

Will contends that it is ‘unworthy’ of conservatives to conclude that immigrant voters will always vote for Democrats. This is a plea for hope over experience. Of course conservatives should be trying to get immigrants’ votes. Of course they should never give up on any voting bloc. But poll after poll has shown that Hispanic voters (many of whom are immigrants) overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party — not just because of immigration, but also because they generally agree with Democrats on fundamental questions of how much the national government can and should do. In light of these data and the experience of California — which has shifted from a Republican stronghold to one of the most liberal states in the country, in large part because of the rise of its immigrant population — it is absurd to pretend that allowing even more immigrant voters wouldn’t be a boon to the Democrats.

Ingraham is right that most modern day immigrants and their immediate descendants vote Democratic – a fact that has been true since 1798 when the Federalist Party blamed Irish and French immigrants for many of the problems in America, driving immigrants and their descendants to the proto-Democratic Party.  Interestingly, the Northern Democrats remained the party of laissez-faire and free trade up until the later 19th century.  During that entire time, they earned the votes of immigrants.

After the Republican Party became the party of limited government and the Democratic Party became the party of big government, immigrants kept on voting Democratic.  Italian and Irish immigrants didn’t suddenly switch their ideology, they continued to vote for the political party that was nice to them and that welcomed them into their ranks – the Democrats.  With few exceptions, this trend has continued to this day.

Constituencies will neither vote for nor listen to the political candidates of the party that they think doesn’t like them – Republicans in this case.  It’s not surprising then that immigrants do not listen to GOP talking points, listen to the Democratic ones, and express support for the latter in polls and in the voting booth.  Imagine that you are a Hispanic immigrant, Asian immigrant, or the child of either; would you be more likely to support the political party that welcomes you to America or the one that wants to deport your friends and family?

Regarding my home state of California turning Democratic because of immigrants, another interpretation fits the data much better: The California State GOP alienated immigrants and their descendants by blaming them for all of the state’s problems in the 1994 reelection campaign of Pete Wilson (R) and the poorly crafted and supported Proposition 187.

California Elections

Election Hisp. Vote for Dem Hisp. Vote for GOP Dem. Plurality Hisp. Hisp. % of Vote Net Edge Hisp. Gave Dems
1998 (Governor)

78%

17%

+61

14%

+8.5%

1996 (President)

70%

21%

+49

11%

+5.4%

1994 (Governor)

71%

25%

+46

9%

+4.1%

1992 (President)

65%

35% (Perot)

+30

8%

+2.4%

1990 (Governor)

53%

47%

+6

5%

+0.3%

1988 (President)

65%

34%

+31

7%

+0.4%

1986 (Governor)

52%

46%

+6

7%

+0.4%

1984 (President)

55%

44%

+11

8%

+0.9

Source:  California’s Expanding Latino Electorate, California Opinion Index, May 2000.

http://field.com/fieldpollonline/subscribers/COI-00-May-Latinos.pdf#page=6

In the two governor elections in California that I have data for prior to 1994, 46 percent and 47 percent of Hispanics voted for the GOP – giving the Democratic gubernatorial candidates a less than one percentage point advantages in those elections.  In 1994, when the GOP blamed most problems in the state on unauthorized immigrants, and many unofficial groups closely aligned with the GOP that year even blamed all immigrants for California’s problems in a particularly tone-deaf campaign, Hispanic vote shares for Pete Willson dropped to only 25 percent while the 1998 GOP candidate received a mere 17 percent.  All of this occurred at a time when the Hispanic voting population of California was expanding dramatically. 

Hispanics in California voted for Democrats over Republicans prior to 1994, but prior to the GOP blaming unauthorized immigrants for California’s problem (many Hispanics in the state interpreted “unauthorized immigrants” to mean “Hispanics”), the difference was minor.  Beginning in 1994 and afterwards, Hispanic support for the Democratic Party was overwhelming and explains much of that party’s electoral gains in California.  Immigrants didn’t turn California into an overwhelming Democratic state – the GOP’s reaction to immigration mostly did that.   

He also contends there is no ‘data’ showing that U.S. culture has lost its power to assimilate immigrants. But today 20.8 percent of Americans don’t speak English at home — up from 17.9 percent in 2000. In a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, Hispanic voters (again, many of whom are immigrants) were more hostile to the word capitalism than almost all other groups surveyed — including self-identified liberal Democrats. The Hudson Institute reported last year that “[b]y 21 percentage points (65% to 44%), native-born citizens are more likely than naturalized immigrants to view America as ‘better’ than other countries as opposed, to ‘no better, no worse.’” In fact, on 20 separate issues, it found a large gap on matters of patriotism and civic understanding between native-born Americans and citizen immigrants. Among immigrants today, it is increasingly fashionable to reject American exceptionalism in favor of multiculturalism. To pretend that this isn’t happening isn’t optimism; it’s sheer fantasy.

Will’s comments are an implicit comparison between the present day rate of immigrant assimilation compared to the assimilation rate of previous waves of immigrants, like Italians, Germans, and the Irish.  Good data from 100 years ago about rates of immigrant assimilation do not exist but we can all agree (hopefully) that it was successful – although nativists a century ago were screaming that those immigrants could not assimilate.  Ingraham’s statistics only compare data from 2000 onwards, which hardly shows that America’s ability to assimilate immigrants has deteriorated over the last century.  Non-English speaking immigrants throughout American history have rarely taken up English immediately.

Samuel P. Huntington in his book Who Are We?makes predictions about Hispanic assimilation rates in the United States, arguing that they will not assimilate.  Ingraham seems to be getting many of her dire predictions about assimilation from Huntington’s writings or from those who support his pessimistic thesis.  Citrin et al. tested Huntington’s hypotheses in their paper published in the journal Perspectives on Politics.  They found that Huntington’s dire predictions were not coming true:

  • Hispanic immigrants and their descendants acquire English and lose Spanish rapidly beginning with the second generation and appear no more or less religious or committed to the work ethic than U.S.-born Caucasians.
  • English fluency has always been a mark of being American.  86 percent of those with families originally from Mexico speak only English or speak it very-well, compared to 94 percent of people of Asian origin.  Although bilingualism is more common among Hispanics of Mexican ancestry, Spanish gets rapidly replaced by English as the dominant language.
  • Linguistic minorities generally accept that English is the country’s common language and that learning English is essential for economic advancement.
  • A clear majority of Hispanics reject a purely ethnic identification.
  • American patriotism grows from one generation to the next and self-identification as “American” increases dramatically.
  • After adjusting for age and education, U.S.-born Hispanics are more patriotic than the average U.S.-born non-Hispanic.  Despite the hyperbolic claims of President Theodore Roosevelt, hyphenated Americanism does not produce less patriotism.
  • A traditional pattern of political assimilation amongst Hispanics appears to prevail.
  • By the third generation, the preferences of Hispanics on numerous cultural and political issues more closely resemble those of whites and blacks than those of first generation Hispanic immigrants.

No doubt the opinions of the immigrants themselves on these issues are quite different from U.S.-born Americans, but that is the wrong group to measure when comparing assimilation rates.  Assimilation is a process that takes generations and always has – with few exceptions.  The present U.S.-born generations that follow immigrants assimilate at a historically steady pace that has recently improved along some dimensions.  This rate of assimilation is occurring despite the large number of Hispanics who are unauthorized immigrants.  Looking at educational attainment rates and wage growth for unauthorized immigrants legalized in the 1986 amnesty, if current unauthorized immigrants were legalized then the rate of their assimilation would increase.

Will claims that conservative opponents of ‘reform’ support the ‘East Germanization’ of our border. This is an outrageous assertion — East Germany tried to keep its people from escaping a vile dictatorship. By contrast, conservatives simply want the U.S. government to fulfill a top priority of any government — defending our borders to ensure that the benefits of American life belong only to those people who are here legally. That’s not happening now. Will relies on a blog post from Brad Plumer of The Post to claim that our southwestern border security is 84 percent ‘effective.’ But that post also noted that in 2011, 85,000 people successfully crossed our Southwest border illegally — and that non-government sources think the number is much higher. And Plumer also has reported that “the best outside estimate” is that the U.S. government only stops about half of all illegal border crossings from Mexico . Conservatives are wise to insist on much stricter enforcement measures.

Brad Plummer didn’t come up with the 84 percent border effectiveness figure, the Government Accountability Office did in December of 2012.  I added up their data for FY 2011 and got an 81 percent enforcement effectiveness rate on the Southwest Border.

Regardless of that small discrepancy, a cheap and effective way to secure the border is by creating a large guest worker visa program for lower-skilled migrant workers.  As I’ve written about numerous times before, a lawful migration pathway will channel would-be unauthorized immigrants into the legal market so Border Patrol can concentrate on security and criminal threats instead of keeping out mostly peaceful workers.  The government followed this strategy in the early 1950s and thereby reduced unauthorized immigration by an estimated 90 percent while the number of Border Patrol agents decreased.  Rather than further fortifying the border, a guest worker visa program is a small government solution to unauthorized immigration.

Will cites a recent Congressional Budget Office report that indicates that immigration will be good for the U.S. economy. But the CBO report states that if the Senate’s ‘Gang of Eight’ bill becomes law, U.S. per-capita gross national product would be 0.7 percent lower in 2023 than if the law were not passed. That hardly sounds like a recipe for a healthier economy.

Ingraham leaves out the portions of the CBO report that do not support her position.  Although every CBO report should be taken with a big grain of salt, this is the first time they have dynamically scored legislation like this.  Delving into the details of the CBO’s dynamic score, they estimated that the Gang of Eight bill would increase gross domestic production by 3.3 percent in 2023 and 5.4 percent in 2033, relative to the baseline.  Ingraham is right that per capita gross national product would lower by .7 percent by 2023 but she fails to mention that it will be higher by .2 percent in 2033.  Wages would be .5 percent higher in 2033 under the Gang of Eight bill.  Those details are relevant to any discussion of the CBO report.

Will concludes that House Republicans are opposed to immigration reform because they have ‘only dim memories of a more dynamic United States.’ Nonsense. Does he really believe that most House Republicans can’t remember the Reagan economy or the 1990s dot-com boom? House Republicans probably are the only ones who remember that the policy of letting millions of immigrants into the country — by not adequately enforcing our borders — has already been tried and has failed. Time after time, we are told that there are 11 million illegal immigrants already here. Where’s the resulting economic boom? Why do we believe that opening the borders even more — and letting even more people pour into this market — would have a different result?

This point by Ingraham is perplexing.  She claims Republicans can remember the dynamic economies of the 1980s and 1990s that simultaneously occurred with massive increases in immigration but then claims that immigration did not lead to any economic expansion.  Immigration from Mexico has been about net-zero since 2006, when the economy first started to worsen thanks to the housing collapse.  If low-immigration helps American workers, as Ingraham seems to claim, where is the post-2006 boom?

Historically, immigration increases during boom times and stops or reverses during poor economies.  A more liberalized international labor market produced through allowing more lawful immigration will help fuel economic booms.  Relaxing our deportation and immigration enforcement policies will stop hurting the economy through separating willing workers from American employers and tearing consumers away from the United States. 

Finally, Will says that ‘[z]ero-sum reasoning about a fixed quantity of American opportunity is for a United States in a defensive crouch.’ Given how badly this country has been governed in recent years, it makes sense for conservatives to be more aggressive about defending us from bad ideas percolating in Washington. More important, Will has misstated the role of optimism in policymaking. The wise policymaker doesn’t assume that any policy adopted in good faith will have good results. Instead, he or she weighs the likely outcome of any new policy based on facts and experience — not sentiments and dreams. In this case, the overwhelming evidence suggests that passing immigration reform will be a political boon for liberals, weaken our national sovereignty and lower our per-capita GNP. Furthermore, recent history shows that leaders in both parties are fanatics on the topic of immigration, and they cannot be trusted to effectively enforce any significant border measure. Under these circumstances, for conservatives to sit down with President Obama and his political allies to write a bill that will reward the president would not be an act of political courage; it would be political suicide.

Ingraham dodges Will’s point.  Despite the generations of bad economic policy emanating from Washington DC, the United States still does not have a zero-sum economy.  As I’ve explained here and elsewhere, people create their own opportunity once here or immigrate because there is a surfeit of it.  If we really do live in a zero-sum economy, then the greatest threat to future American opportunity does not come from immigration but from procreation.        

Ingraham can be a very lucid writer but her piece responding to George Will is sometimes confused and does not convincingly counter his points.