How African Americans View Immigration Reform

For as much as immigration reform is talked about as an unqualified good for Democrats (who need to protect their standing with Latinos) and Republicans (who need to improve it), it’s not nearly that simple. The GOP relies on high support from working-class whites to win elections. These are the same people who view increased immigration with trepidation—after all, a large influx of low-wage workers means new competitors for jobs, housing, and education. Given the wage stagnation of the last 20 years, there is real fear of increased immigration and its implication for their livelihoods.

On the other side are African Americans, who are disproportionately working-class, and more likely to view Latino immigrants as economic competitors. Economic interest suggests strong support for a more restrictionist immigration regime from this group of blacks. And given the role “linked fate” plays in shaping African American public opinion—in short, perceptions of racial group interests serve as heuristics for individual interests, and vice versa—this support should cut across class barriers and come from all sides of the black community, thus presenting a problem for reform-minded Democrats.

It turns out, however, that immigration is one issue where self-interest might matter more than group interest for African Americans. While linked fate can reliably predict black opinion on a whole range of issues—from high support for the Democratic Party to high support for President Obama’s health care law—Tatishe Nteta, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, finds that it’s less reliable when the question comes to immigration. There, views differ by class: Working-class blacks, like working-class whites, show substantially more support for restrictive immigration policies:

Middle-class blacks, by contrast, are less driven by economic self-interest when assessing immigration reform proposals. “For African Americans who lost a job to an immigrant,” writes Ntete, “working-class membership resulted in a 13 percentage point increase” in support for more restrictive laws, compared to middle-class blacks, who show a similar level of support regardless of their employment situation vis-à-vis immigrants.

As far as practical politics goes, this suggests two things. First, Democrats probably won’t have a “black” problem if they go forward with comprehensive immigration reform. What they might have, however, is a working-class problem, as lower-income blacks and whites show resistance to plans for more immigration. Given the Democratic Party’s weakness with working-class whites, that isn’t a huge concern. But losing black voters—even if it’s just a few percentage points—could disadvantage the party in southern states like Virginia and North Carolina, where overwhelming black support is required to stay competitive. A little less enthusiasm, and a few fewer votes, could keep a statewide candidate from reaching a majority.

And indeed, if Republicans are feeling ambitious, this divide could form the basis for outreach to working-class blacks. Historically, Republicans have been able to win 10 percent of African Americans in presidential elections. A return to that performance would make several states—Ohio and Pennsylvania, for instance—far more competitive than they are at the moment. Insofar that the GOP wants to cleave the Democratic coalition, immigration might offer a way to reach one group of working-class voters.