The Changing Politics of Immigration Policymaking in Congress

By James R. Edwards, Jr. and James G. Gimpel on July 1, 1998

Although few voters outside of California cast their presidential and congressional votes according to the positions candidates take on immigration policy, today this issue remains one of the hottest controversies on Capitol Hill. But immigrants and immigration were not always as controversial as they have become in the late 1990s. In the 1960s, members of Congress rarely thought about immigration policy, and the issue certainly didn't generate much friction between Republicans and Democrats. In fact, when Congress decided to reform the immigration system in 1965, the vote in favor of the reform was overwhelming. There was very little debate on the House and Senate floors. Immigration policy has grown more divisive in the past three decades because the economy, the welfare state, and the immigrant population have changed. Now, immigration is discussed as an issue of redistribution and cost, whereas before it was an issue of humanitarianism.

In our book, The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform, we examine the evolving controversy over U.S. immigration policy from the landmark 1965 law to the present. That law has resulted in the immigrant population's significant change in character, which has had an important impact on both immigration policy and the tone of the debate in Congress. The turning point appears to be the refugee admissions of the late 1970s and the early 1980s, not Proposition 187's passage in 1994.

Before 1979, immigration policy remained largely a consensus issue. Republicans and Democrats believed that an open door policy posed the host country no challenges that could not be overcome easily. Objections to immigrant admissions were occasionally voiced on the basis of Cold War politics — that certain immigrants could be Communists or lack commitment to democratic values — but these concerns did not mobilize a broad front against immigrant admissions. Members of Congress passed most immigration bills on voice votes (signaling the absence of contention) and with bipartisan support. Even after electronic voting was introduced in 1973, recorded votes on immigration policy were uncommon.

In the face of increasing budgetary pressure and a massive influx of needy refugees from around the world in the 1970s, members of Congress were torn between two poles. On one hand, they held a customary humanitarian concern for families separated because of immigration as well as for people displaced by wars, famine, and political oppression. On the other hand, members had domestic priorities of maintaining taxes and spending on public assistance programs at reasonable levels.

The partisan division on immigration policy is traceable to policy choices made in the late 1970s. Democrats in Congress responded to the arrival of immigrants and refugees in that period by creating costly resettlement assistance programs, including a new resettlement bureaucracy, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. This move introduced a strong element of federal redistribution into the immigration debate. Republicans, therefore, were put in the position of opposing mass immigration because it imposed burdensome costs in the form of welfare and public aid. Our review of the committee and floor debates between 1978 and 1981 shows that use of public assistance animated considerable opposition to an open-door policy at least 15 years before the initial rumblings of Proposition 187.

The Mariel boatlift in 1980 was perhaps the crowning blow to bipartisan consensus on open admissions. Many members of Congress greeted Castro's ridding Cuba of its undesirables with something akin to panic because a small fraction of this population had felony records, many were physically or mentally disabled, and the marielitos were considerably poorer and less skilled than the Cuban exiles of 20 years earlier. The prospect that these refugees could take their place alongside those from the earlier exodus seemed slim indeed.

As immigrants and refugees have come to depend increasingly on redistributive programs, the lack of progress of the new immigrants in our postindustrial economy has generated a pronounced political split between Republicans and Democrats on immigration issues that did not exist in earlier times. Today, the issue of what immigrants cost society sharply divides the political parties.

Public aid programs are naturally attractive to many immigrants who arrive on our shores in poverty and with few skills. While immigrants may always have arrived on America's shores penniless and unskilled, the society to which they are arriving has changed since the last century.

The immigrants who arrived in the 1890s were not much different from most native-born Americans in their skill and educational levels. Those immigrants could make up economic ground with hard work and, within a generation or so, were as well off as the native-born. But immigrants arriving since the 1960s have faced a far greater skills deficit, given the emphasis our national economy now places on education. The U.S. economy is demanding a more highly skilled workforce, yet the workforce has a glut of unskilled laborers. Thus, the earnings gap between natives and immigrants has increased since 1970, especially for those with little education.

While a long-standing principle in U.S. immigration law has prohibited immigrants from becoming public charges (being dependent on public assistance), immigrant use of welfare benefits has risen and has even outpaced native usage rates.

For example, immigrant Supplemental Security Income (SSI) participation rose from 3 percent of the caseload in 1982 to 12 percent by 1993. Elderly immigrants on SSI rose from 6 percent to 28 percent from 1982 to 1993. And a 1997 study by the National Academy of Sciences found that immigrant-headed households are poorer than native ones and receive more government-funded income transfers.

The changing economy, the expansion of the welfare state, the changing immigrant population, and the vast increase in the number of immigrants have all contributed to the breakdown of congressional consensus on immigration policy. Consequently, we observe that members of Congress are now more likely to demand recorded, or "roll call," votes on immigration issues, a sign that they have become divisive and controversial.

In the mid-1960s, recorded votes on immigration matters were rare, but by 1995, 75 percent of the immigration-related votes on the House floor were recorded votes. And the floor division on these recorded votes has reflected narrowing majorities, clearly indicating that Congress is more divided on immigration issues. Interestingly, trends in public opinion have had little impact on the changing tone of the debate in Washington since for most of this century, the public has consistently favored restrictions on immigration levels. There are, to be sure, clear differences in opinion on immigration policy across levels of education and wealth. Better educated, wealthier people have generally been more tolerant of generous immigration than the less educated and the poor. While racial prejudice plays a role in shaping opinion toward immigrants, we find that fear of the economic competition posed by immigration among those with less education and fewer skills is a stronger influence on attitudes toward immigration policy than are racial attitudes. Still, candidates are rarely elected or defeated on the basis of this issue alone. Again, California is an important exception.

One question that begs to be answered is why the public will has not been translated into public policy. Why have immigration levels continued to rise since 1965 in the face of public opposition?

Our answer is twofold. First, the public's opinions on immigration are, for the most part, not deep-seated. In many areas of the country (although these may be shrinking), people report not having any contact with immigrants, as the foreign-born population is still most heavily concentrated on the coasts. While having contact with immigrants is not necessary to forming an opinion about immigration policy, clearly the ubiquity of legal and illegal immigrants in California has contributed to the politicization of the issue there.

The second reason why public opinion has not prevailed is that a strong pro-immigration interest group community has arisen in the last 20 years that has fought very effectively for less restrictive entry and immigrants' rights. These groups have some natural allies on Capitol Hill, but they have advanced their cause by working in coalition and by providing information to the large number of undecided members whose constituencies are not speaking very loudly on immigration matters.

Probably the single most influential group in Washington is the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the official organization of the immigration bar. While AILA's membership is small — around 4,500 — the group is influential because it is well-funded and has considerable expertise. AILA was instrumental in cementing the coalition of business, religious, and immigrants' rights groups that lobbied against passage of restrictions in legal and employment-based immigration in 1996.

In the 1990s, even major U.S. labor unions joined the pro-immigration lobby, reversing a long-standing tradition of opposition to immigration, as the growing numbers of Hispanics and Asians employed in service industries became targets for union organizing in the late 1980s. The changing demography of the American workforce finally caught up with labor union politics as a generous immigration policy, particularly for purposes of family reunification, has now become an instrument for rebuilding a depleted rank-and-file. Union leadership continues to be suspicious of employment and skills-based immigration, however.

The pro-restriction lobby is not nearly as well developed or as well coordinated. The leading restrictionist organization, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), found itself rather isolated in the 1995-1996 round of reform against a diverse and well-organized coalition of pro-immigration groups, which included big business, high-tech industries, and libertarians.

Through extensive interviews with members of Congress and staff, we learned that the pro-restriction lobby also has a public relations problem with many otherwise sympathetic politicians. Those members have come to associate it with extreme views on the environment and controversial population-control policies. FAIR, and other groups concerned about the environment, will have to learn to build coalition partnerships as the opposition has done because, as far as many members of Congress are concerned, no single Washington-based group truly represents the views of the mainstream American public.

In the absence of stronger, better-coordinated expressions of public sentiment across the country, the inside-the-Beltway debate among interest group activists has influenced the direction of immigration policymaking, giving the supporters of liberal policy a modicum of strength they would not otherwise possess. But, while the diverse pro-immigration lobby was largely successful in winning over the support of members from both parties, this apparent bipartisanship has been greatly exaggerated — especially when compared with the consensus prevailing in earlier times. In the 1990s, Congress is more divided along party lines than it has ever been on immigration matters, with only a small fraction of Republicans and Democrats crossing over to support the other side. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), for example, is notable as a Republican supporting high immigration precisely because he is the exception and not the rule in his party. And even he opposes welfare use by immigrants. As we argue in our book, the emergence of predictable partisan divisions in Congress is the result of the doubts about the costs and benefits of immigration that came to the fore in the late 1970s, much earlier than most scholars have indicated.

Given an economy that demands skilled labor, the rise of federal welfare programs for immigrants, and increasingly vocal special-interest groups, it is easy to understand why members of Congress have begun to worry and argue about the effects of immigration. The rise in recorded votes on immigration signals that policymakers realize that the capacity of unskilled immigrants to thrive and prosper as well as whether the United States can afford to import poverty through its generous immigration policy are hot issues and that their positions on immigration may soon play an important role in elections nationwide, as they do now in California.

James G. Gimpel and James R. Edwards, Jr., are co-authors of The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform (Boston: Allyn & Bacon ISBN: 0-205-28203-2). Gimpel is Associate Professor of Government at the University of Maryland, College Park. Edwards, the Communications Manager for the Healthcare Leadership Council, served as an aide to Rep. Ed Bryant (R-TN) on the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims in 1995-1996.