Mexican Immigration and the Political Polarization of the United States

By Matthew Rice

Rice fresh writing photo

Image Credit: Author's Personal Photo

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me." Engraved on a slab of bronze, these hallowed words, written by Emma Lazarus, greeted millions of immigrants as they gazed upon the Statue of Liberty with hopeful eyes. Yet, nearly one hundred and thirty years after Lazarus penned her famous poem, there is much confusion over the issue of immigration. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, paralleling Miss Lazarus's beckoning, "Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me," recently complained, "When Mexico sends people, they're not sending their best." Disregarding political decorum altogether, Trump continued: "They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us [sic]. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." (Ye Hee Lee). While Trump is arguably the most inflammatory candidate on the issue of immigration, he is not alone in holding a far-from-center ideology on the matter. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, just this past month, promised to use "the executive orders of the president" to grant citizenship to a staggering eleven million undocumented immigrants (Sargent). Underneath each of these positions are wildly differing views on the implications of Mexican immigration. Disagreement over the impact of Mexican immigrants on economics, "American culture," and crime is a sign of increasing polarization between the two dominant political parties in the United States (US).

The History of Mexican Migration: Enabling a Dependent America

In order to understand the polarizing issue of Mexican immigration in the United States, it is first necessary to delve into the history of migrants from the country that defines America's southern border. The earliest mass migration of Mexicans to the US can be traced back to 1907. Japanese immigration, which brought nearly four hundred thousand emigrants to the U.S. over a span of twenty years, had slowed to a trickle. All the while, demand for cheap, foreign labor was higher than ever (Diller; Pettus). Mexican immigrants responded enthusiastically to what they saw as an opportunity for a taste of American prosperity. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, it was Mexican laborers who filled many of the positions left open by men fighting overseas. During this time, American farmers developed a dependency on Mexican workers; when the Immigration Act of 1924 introduced strict immigration quotas, Mexicans were exempt because they were deemed essential to American agriculture (LoBreglio 936).

In the months following December 7, 1941, Congress codified the temporary replacement of domestic laborers by Mexican citizens in the Bracero Program as a part of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement. Under this program, migrant workers were promised humane treatment, a modest wage, and shelter in the United States in return for their services. Although the Bracero Program was meant to be a provisional wartime measure, it survived for nineteen years after the United States dropped "Fat Man" on Nagasaki; between 1948 and 1964, the "United States imported, on average, 200,000 braceros a year" (Ngai 139). Though Congress voted to end the program in 1964, the market for Mexican labor did not dry up. Left without a legal path to work for American farmers, Mexican laborers resorted to illegal immigration to continue making a living (Pettus). Fifty-one years later, there are an estimated 5.6 million undocumented Mexican immigrants living in the United States (Krogstad and Passel).

Implications of Immigration: "Let's Dispel with this fiction"

Among the controversial implications of Mexican immigration disputed by Republicans and Democrats is the impact of immigrants on the economy. In 2015, the Pew Research Center estimated that about 5.1% of the workforce in America is undocumented, meaning that employers used over 800,000 illegal immigrants last year. Taking these numbers into consideration, it is widely agreed upon by both parties that immigrants must have a measurable effect on America's prized capitalist economy. The direction of this effect, however, is a point of contention, a point which has shaped various stances on the issue. Republicans tend to either promote deportation of illegal immigrants to "create more jobs for Americans" and "keep immigrants from driving down wages of working citizens," or they favor the status quo of cheap labor, which, they claim, "bolsters the economy." As a whole, however, 71% of Republicans agree that "immigrants make the economy worse." (Krogstad). A 64% majority of Democrats, on the other hand, agree that immigrants are either beneficial to the economy or "do not have much of an effect" (Krogstad). Following this ideology, Democrats often seek to provide a "path to citizenship" so that "[undocumented workers] can come out of the shadows of darkness, of discrimination, of bigotry, of exploitation, and join us fully," as Democratic Congressman Luis Guiterrez once rationalized in an interview with Democracy Now! (Gans, Replogle and Tichenor).

Having considered the stances of both parties on the economic repercussions of Mexican immigration, the natural question that follows is, "Which group is correct?" Looking at economic research in conjunction with each position reveals a partial answer. As is turns out, most economists, regardless of party affiliation, "agree that immigrants… benefit the overall economy." (Davidson; Gans, Replogle and Tichenor 229) The claims put forth by deportation-advocates are, by and large, misconceptions. In investigating whether or not immigrants "take jobs from Americans," UC Berkley economist David Card found that, "although immigration has a strong effect on relative supplies of different skill groups, local labor market outcomes of low skilled natives are not much affected by these relative supply shocks." (24). On the subject of illegal-immigration affecting the wages of Americans, Card concluded: "The wages of native dropouts (people with less than a high school diploma) relative to native high school graduates have remained nearly constant since 1980, despite pressures from immigrant inflows that have increased the relative supply of dropout labor, and despite the rise in the wage gap between other education groups in the U.S. economy." (25). In other words, immigrants have had no measurable effect on the employment of equally skilled Americans or on their wages. In fact, some researchers claim that undocumented workers have "increased legal workers' pay in complementary jobs by up to 10 percent" (Davidson).

Conceding that immigration does not hurt working Americans or lower their wages, but, in fact, has positive effects, one is left with two positions: preserve the status quo or provide a path to citizenship. Those in favor of keeping the status quo often point to the fact that immigrants currently contribute about $15 billion to Social Security through payroll taxes but only make use of about $1 billion of that, as they are ineligible for many government services; proponents of this conservative policy argue that if immigrants were granted citizenship, they would become eligible for all of the social security benefits and could strain the system. Advocates for citizenship, however, point out that the increase in tax revenue contributed by 11 million new citizens would offset the additional expenses of Social Security. While there are many scholars on both sides of this particular debate, one of the most authoritative voices on the issue, the President's Council of Economic Advisors, concluded in 2007, under Republican President George W. Bush, that "Although subject to the uncertainties inherent to long-run projections, careful forward-looking estimates of immigration's fiscal effects, accounting for all levels of government spending and tax revenue, suggest a modest positive influence on average." In the end, the theory that immigration reform would benefit the US economy holds the high ground in this ongoing fight, though it cannot yet claim total victory due to the lack of a definitive consensus among economic researchers.

Putting aside economics, another aspect of immigration's impact on the nation is its effect on American culture. In his now-famous play, The Melting Pot, Israel Zangwill proclaimed, "America is God's crucible, the great Melting-Pot…Here you stand… at Ellis Island… in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won't be long like that, brothers… Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American." ( Melting-Pot act I). It was perhaps prophetic that Zangwill neglected to include "Mexicans" in his recipe for "the American;" many Americans, especially conservative Republicans, have expressed concerns that Mexican immigrants pose a threat to "Americanism" (Gans, Replogle and Tichenor 399). In a 2015 Pew Research Center poll, 55% of Republicans agreed that immigrants, regardless of national origin, "make American society worse in the long run," compared to only 24% of Democrats. The same poll found that "when it comes to [immigrants] from Latin America, 58% of Republicans say that immigrants have had a mostly negative impact on society, compared with 23% of Democrats." (Krogstad). These numbers reflect a significant divide between Republican and Democratic attitudes towards Mexican immigrants.

One of the issues underlying the concern that immigrants have a negative impact on American culture is a that the county's latest flood of foreign-born residents will refuse to accept the country's "linguistic common ground," English (Onyewuchi 410). Jim Cummins, an education professor at the University of Toronto, noted that "opponents of bilingual education frequently characterize the use of languages other than English in schools as 'un-American'… and [are concerned] about the number of immigrants entering the United States and the consequent growth of cultural and linguistic diversity" (128). One manifestation of this opposition to multiculturalism was California's Proposition 227, sponsored by Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron Unz. Voted into law in 1998, Prop 227 banned bilingual education in schools throughout the state (Garity 6; Cummins 127). But even back in 1997, when Prop 227 was being formulated, there was already sufficient research proving the benefits of bilingual education not only to immigrants, but to native English speakers as well (Cummins 131). This led many educators to oppose the ban on bilingual education. In fact, Stanford education professor Kenji Hakuta, a prominent expert in language acquisition, upon hearing about Prop 227, decided to "speak with Unz to persuade him against such an initiative, because it was highly likely to be a wedge issue… and [that] divisive politics were going to be harmful…and basically how the proposed initiative was a very bad idea" (Hakuta 166). Although support for repealing Prop 227 is starting to build, particularly among students, Hakuta lamented, "…until Americans can get over the cultural stigma surrounding bilingualism, no amount of evidence will be persuasive except to a boutique constituency interested in the cultural values of linguistic diversity" (Garity et al 10; Hakuta 167). Ultimately, the party divide in support for bilingual education, which is invaluable to immigrants, offers more proof of a general division in attitudes towards foreign born residents.

Beyond economic and cultural implications, is it necessary to examine the impact that immigrants have on crime in the United States. As it turns out, Donald Trump is not alone in his belief that "[Mexican immigrants] are bringing crime;" the Pew Research Center reported in 2015 that 71% of Republicans believe that "immigrants in the U.S. are making crime worse." But again the data shows a major split between Republican and Democratic beliefs on the issue: 65% of Democrats held that immigrants are either having no measurable effect or a positive effect on crime, meaning that only 35% agree with the Republican majority view (Krogstad). So, once again, the reader is poised to ask, "Who is right?" Unlike the question raised about the economic impact of immigration, there is a fairly decisive answer in regards to crime. Testifying before a House subcommittee on the connection between crime and Immigration, Rutgers Criminal Justice professor Anne Morrison Piehl affirmed, "…there is no empirical evidence that immigrants pose a particular crime threat. In contrast, the evidence points to immigrants having lower involvement in crime than natives. The direct evidence on crime rates shows that localities that receive large numbers of immigrants do not experience increases in relative crime rates." ("The Connection"). Recent data confirms this. A 2015 report by researchers at the American Immigration Council found the incarceration rate of male immigrants in the United States to be 1.6%, compared to 3.3% for native-born males. Among US residents without a high school diploma, native-born citizens were three times more likely to be incarcerated than immigrants (10.7% versus 2.8%) (Ewing, Martínez, and Rumbaut 1-3). In regards to drug offenses, the Center for Investigative Reporting found in 2013 that 80% of drug-trafficking arrests made by the Border Patrol involved a US citizen (Ye Hee Lee). As for Donald Trump's claim that immigrants are "rapists," U.S. Sentencing Commission data shows that 93% of sexual abuse cases handled by the federal government involved a U.S. citizen. All of these figures demonstrate that, in general, immigrants are less predisposed to crime than natural-born citizens. Speculating as to why this is the case, Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute, said, "Immigrants in general — unauthorized immigrants in particular — are a self-selected group who generally come to the U.S. to work. And once they're here, most of them want to keep their nose down and do their business, and they're sensitive to the fact that they're vulnerable" (Ye Hee Lee). As a whole, data sides with the majority opinion of Democrats on the issue immigration's impact on crime; immigrants, in fact, are not "bringing crime."

Party Polarization: It Was Not Always This Way

One question that has come up consistently in the 2016 Presidential election is, "Where are the moderate candidates?" But perhaps the question that should be raised first is, "Where are the moderate voters?" A comprehensive 2014 Pew Research Center study on party polarization introduced this issue by declaring, "Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades" (6). Not only is the American public split on policy and ideology, but many people actually view the party they do not belong to as dangerous; in 2014 36% of Republicans viewed Democrats as "a threat to the nation's wellbeing" while 27% of Democrats saw Republicans as filling the same role. Even among those who are not quite as alarmist, there is still an air of resentment towards the "other party"; 43% of Republicans had a "very unfavorable" view of Democrats and 38% of Democrats felt the same about their political opponents clad in red. But is was not always this way. In 1994, only 17% of Republicans had a very unfavorable view of Democrats and a mere 16% of Democrats had a very unfavorable view of Republicans (11). With regard to ideology, Figure 1 shows the movement of the median Republican and Democrat over a twenty-year span. This visualization clearly shows a retreat from the moderate center towards ideological extremes. Translating the graphic into numbers, the Pew study found that in 1994, 64% of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat and 70% of Democrats were more liberal than the median Republican. In 2014, these numbers were 92% and 94%, respectively (20).

  • A graph depicting the distribution of Democrats and Republicans on a 10-item scale of political values
    Figure 1. Distribution of Democrats and Republicans on a
    10-item scale of political values from Pew Research Center;
    "Political Polarization in the American Public." 2014.
  • A infographic depicting party affiliation
    Figure 2 . Senators Casting the Same Votes from The
    Economist; Renzo Lucioni, "Political Polarization: United
    States of Amoeba." 2014.

Addressing the issue of immigration specifically, Pew found that "in 1994, 64% of Republicans and 62% of Democrats viewed immigrants as a on the country; today 46% of Republicans but just 27% of Democrats say this" (29). All of these numbers go to show that the American Public has become dramatically more polarized over the past twenty years.

In attempting to answer the first question raised in the previous paragraph, "Where are the moderate candidates?," one runs into obstacles. Namely, it is difficult to label congressmen and other politicians as "moderate" or "extreme" using the same survey techniques employed by the Pew Study due to poor participation rates. Fortunately, Researchers have found ways around this problem. Figure 2 shows a "force-directed network map" of voting in the US Senate, where the nodes represent senators and the links between them represent "instances when senators have voted similarly on substantive legislation on at least 100 occasions during the same congressional session." (Lucioni). These complex webs give a good introduction into the manifestation of polarization in Congress. Essentially, they paint a picture of the disintegration of bipartisanship. Politicians are no longer willing to reach across the aisle to compromise, or at least not to the extent that they did back in 1989.

In their 2006 book Polarized America, political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal analyzed congressional roll call votes to compose a two-dimensional spatial model of party polarization over the past 128 years. Using the roll call data, they were able to assign members of congress an "ideology score" between -1 and 1, with -1 being perfect adherence to liberal ideology and 1 being perfect adherence to conservative ideology. McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal then calculated the difference in average ideology scores between each party to assign a "polarization score" between 0 and 1 for each year of congress, with 1 being complete polarization. Their data confirms the trend seen in Figure 2; polarization scores have risen significantly over the past several decades: from .588 in 1973, to .611 in 1983, to .680 in 1993 and, in the largest jump, to .779 in 2003 (37-40). Upon examining this evidence, one can conclusively state that polarization is not merely occurring among the American people, but among their elected representatives as well.

Conclusions: Where to Go from Here

In investigating the implications of immigration, this paper found evidence of polarization between Democrats and Republicans, which is largely supported by studies of the American public and elite politicians. On the question of economics, it was determined that immigrants do not have a negative effect on the labor opportunities or wages of native-born Americans, but, in fact, may have a positive effect, according to some economists. In looking at the divide in agreement with the claim that "immigrants make American society worse in the long run," and, more specifically, that bilingualism is "un-American," copious research from experts on language acquisition was cited that spoke to benefits of bilingual education not only to immigrant children, but to native English speakers as well. Finally, after inspecting crime rates of immigrants, it was established that immigrants from Mexico are not "bringing crime and drugs" and are not "rapists"; rather, crime rates among immigrants are lower than native-born citizens.

Though it may have seemed laborious and unnecessary to examine the veracity of each party's claims about the impact of immigration, such scrupulous investigation serves this end: to suggest a roadmap for the future. Hopefully, after being presented evidence on the economic, cultural, and criminal implications immigration, the reader will agree that, in general, immigrants are not bad for America. On the contrary, immigration appears to be a force of good for the United States. With this in mind, politicians would do well to overcome the trend of polarization fueled by misinformation and attempt a comprehensive reform of immigration policy. Though one can cite endless sources proving the positive impact that immigration has had on the United States, at the end of the day, politicians must remember that their decisions, or, more recently, indecisiveness, affects over 11 million people who call America their home. It is time to push aside partisan politics. It is time to give the security of citizenship to the unauthorized immigrants who work so diligently to provide for their families. It is time to remember America's origins and to embrace multiculturalism. It is time to "Make America Great Again."