Downplaying Nativism

Responding to my piece about the souring prospects for immigration reform, Ezra Klein makes the odd statement that nativism is the "dog that didn't bark" (Kevin Drum has a good response to this here). Ezra writes:

The Tea Parties haven't been very focused on immigration, and while abortion and socialism both became major issues during health-care reform, fears that the bill would cover illegal immigrants (it won't, incidentally) never became a marquee issue.

Except coverage for illegal immigrants played a significant role in the health-care debate. It was the subject of Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" outburst, and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus threatened to derail the whole thing over a provision in the Senate bill barring illegal immigrants from participating in the insurance exchanges.

The Tea Party has indeed focused primarily on health care, but even as the health-care battle was heating up in November, Tea Party members organized demonstrations in at least 50 cities against comprehensive immigration reform. Now that health-care reform has passed, Devin Burghart, who tracks the Tea Party movement for the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, notes that it "has become far more common for Tea Party groups to discuss the topic of undocumented immigrants at events and on their websites. … In terms of their long-term planning it is clearly becoming a part of their agenda.” If the anti-immigration rallies planned by Tea Partiers for mid-April are any indication, this indeed appears to be the case.

Ezra also doubts that nativism is "on an unchecked rise." But as Gallup's most recent release on immigration opinion says, the poll numbers "mark a return to the attitudes that prevailed in the first few years after 9/11," which "may reflect the country's economic situation, as Americans tend to become less pro-immigration during difficult economic times." Even if the CNN poll numbers Ezra cites, showing an increase of 6 percentage points for those favoring decreased immigration since 2006, are not "catastrophic," that's not really the point: The public-opinion trend, taken together with the political climate and the increased power of anti-immigrant groups amount to a more hostile environment for proponents of comprehensive immigration reform.

I also think Ezra's downplaying of nativist sentiment is a symptom of a larger problem. The American left, as Dara Lind observes, has largely failed to see immigration reform as a priority. Recently, the issue has taken a backseat to dealing with the recession; this is understandable. But even before the recession, it was generally Republicans, not Democrats, who took the lead on comprehensive immigration reform. Ezra's claim that "illegal immigrants, love 'em or hate 'em, aren't at the forefront of people's minds" may be true for members of the Beltway's insular liberal intelligentsia. But with this month's immigration protest, April's planned response, and movement from the White House and the Senate, it's not an accurate description of the facts on the ground.

-- Gabriel Arana

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