Event recap | The Mass Politics of Immigration

Dr. Wayne Cornelius, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of California at San Diego, gave a talk at the Tower Center Feb. 1 called “The Mass Politics of Immigration.”

Cornelius argues there have been eight episodes of American nativism dating all the way back to waves of anti-German and anti-French sentiments in the 1790s. His presentation focused on more recent episodes including a wave of anti-Mexican sentiment appearing in 1990 and an anti-Middle East wave beginning after 9/11.

Cornelius tracked the anti-Mexican wave back to California in the 1990s, and more specifically to Proposition 187, a statute with the goal of denying undocumented workers access to public services. He said immigrants were a scapegoat for the economic state of California.

Contributing factors and perceptions to the anti-immigration sentiment

The anti-immigrant sentiment is driven by several factors according to Cornelius, including the number of immigrants coming (which surged in the early ’90s), the country of origin (“problem nationalities”), catalytic events (such as Prop 187 and 9/11), and media exposure (both volume and content). He said excessive media coverage of Latino immigration has shaped public perception by leading people to believe it is a problem, even though people are emigrating from India and China at a much faster rate.

Another contributing factor  is political entrepreneurs who exploit the fears and concerns of people in order to win votes. His first example of this was Pete Wilson, who won the election to become governor of California in 1994.

When the discussion then turned to President Donald Trump, Cornelius said he was simultaneously riding the wave of the anti-immigration sentiment and building it up. The perceptions of immigration that fuel these negative feelings are that immigrants take jobs away from Americans, they increase taxes, they benefit greedy employers and advance corporate welfare, and as Samuel Huntington said, they threaten American culture and identity.

According to Cornelius, the perception of immigration is divided politically as well. “The majority of Democrats say immigrants strengthen us, while the majority of Republicans say they burden us,” he said.

The sentiment against immigration is strongest with the white working class. “They saw that America was changing unfavorably for them, and they believed immigration was driving the change,” he said. Cornelius argues this led them to vote for Donald Trump and the Republican Party.  That being said, anti-immigration feelings are resulting in increased white Republicanism.

The incentive for politicians to engage in immigrant bashing won’t change until demography does. While the Latino population in the U.S. is growing, Latino voter turnout remains low. Even with Trump’s explosive rhetoric, Latino turnout only increased by 1 percent. Gerrymandering will also continue to dampen the Latino voice, according to Cornelius.

The negative bipartisan view of immigration

While roughly 70 percent of the population is in favor of finding a way for undocumented

Pia Orrenius, senior economist at the Dallas Federal Reserve, asks Dr. Cornelius a question.

immigrants to stay in the U.S., allowing for increased flows of people legally into the country remains unpopular in both parties.

Pia Orrenius, senior economist at the Dallas Federal Reserve and Tower Center Senior Fellow, argued that this is problematic since immigration is essential to the U.S. economy.

“The goals to attain 3-4 percent GPD growth are dreams without immigration,” Orrenius said.

Cornelius made the argument that people come here illegally for lack of a better option. Without reforming the system, they will continue to come.

“The legal immigration system is broken,” he said.