David R. Henderson  

Gross Evidence on Immigrant Voting

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One of the concerns I have had about substantially expanding immigration to the United States, Canada, and other countries is that a large number of immigrants, not understanding the important role of economic freedom in raising our standards of living, will "vote it away." Recently I posted about one piece of counter-evidence in California. I think many commenters did not get the significance of that piece of evidence. I didn't give it as a slam dunk but, rather, as one important piece of evidence. Various commenters came up with alternate scenarios in which the legislative representatives who represented some of those immigrant-heavy districts would have voted for more government. They missed my point. The particular piece of legislation that these legislators voted against was so serious that I had started a conversation with my wife about moving out of California after I retire. To put that in perspective, she and I had agreed until then that the probability we will stay in the central coast of California is somewhere between 0.9 (me) and 0.95 (her).

While driving on Monday, I listened to a few minutes of Rush Limbaugh's radio show. Limbaugh is a strong critic of both legal and illegal immigration. Limbaugh stated that the change in the immigration law in 1965 made us a completely different country in 2015. Specifically, he claimed that the percent of Americans who were immigrants in 1965 was much lower than the percent today. He's right. That accords with these data from Brookings. In 1960, five years before the change in legislation, the foreign-born population was only 5.4% of the overall U.S. population. In 2010, after the legislation had been in existence for 45 years, that percent had more than doubled--to 12.9%. And those data--on the stock of population--are broadly consistent with the flow data on immigration from George Borjas in his article, "Immigration," in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. His data show that the number of immigrants to the United States between 1991 and 2000 was over 3.5 times the number between 1951 and 1960, the last decade before the change. Given that the U.S. population was not nearly 3.5 times as many in the 1990s as in the 1950s, the flow of immigrants decade by decade increased their representation in the U.S. population.

Why do I find this so interesting? Because that means that immigrants were not a big factor in voting in 1964 or even in 1972. Why is that interesting? Because the programs that are responsible for most of the growth in government spending after about 1950 occurred between those two years. I have in mind three: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. Lyndon Johnson got Medicare and Medicaid into law in 1965. And, whereas Social Security was well established 30 years earlier, LBJ took advantage of the baby boom demographics to substantially raise Social Security payments. President Nixon, in a bidding war with Wilbur Mills, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a potential Democratic rival for the presidency in 1972, took advantage of the same demographics (the baby boomers were still young) to raise Social Security benefits even more. All this happened without the immigrant vote being significant.

Is that slam dunk evidence that immigrants don't vote freedom away more than natives do? No. But it's pretty strong evidence.

By the way, off topic with this particular post, but on topic with the immigration issue generally, George Borjas has a new paper that finds that the David Card results on the Mariel boat lift ("The Impact of the Mariel Boatlift on the Miami Labor Market." Industrial and Labor Relations Review 43: 245-257) were wrong. Recall that Card found that the increase in the Miami-area number of immigrants from Cuba had little effect on wages, Borjas has done a more-careful study in which he separates, in the data, high-school dropouts. He finds that they took a big hit on wages. Specifically, writes:

A crucial lesson from this literature is that any credible attempt to measure the wage impact of immigration must carefully match the skills of the immigrants with those of the pre-existing workers. The Marielitos were disproportionately low-skill; at least 60 percent were high school dropouts. A reappraisal of the Mariel evidence, specifically examining the evolution of wages in the low-skill group most likely to be affected, quickly overturns the finding that Mariel did not affect Miami's wage structure. The absolute wage of high school dropouts in Miami dropped dramatically, as did the wage of high school dropouts relative to that of either high school graduates or college graduates. The drop in the relative wage of the least educated Miamians was substantial (10 to 30 percent), implying an elasticity of wages with respect to the number of workers between -0.5 and -1.5.




COMMENTS (31 to date)
Justin D writes:

--"Why do I find this so interesting? Because that means that immigrants were not a big factor in voting in 1964 or even in 1972. Why is that interesting? Because the programs that are responsible for most of the growth in government spending after about 1950 occurred between those two years."--

I don't see how this is interesting. If we're interested in whether or not immigrants today tend to be more liberal than native born Americans today, looking at the political views of Americans several generations ago doesn't help us.

As it turns out, at least when it comes to Hispanic immigrants, they overwhelmingly prefer Democrats, 64% either strongly or leaning Democrat with only 16% strongly or leaning Republican.

http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/07/22/are-unauthorized-immigrants-overwhelmingly-democrats/

We find that 75% of Hispanics prefer bigger government with more services, rising to 81% considering only first generation Hispanics. That compares to 41% for the nation overall.

http://www.pewhispanic.org/2012/04/04/v-politics-values-and-religion/?src=prc-number

Asian Americans, though not distinguishing between immigrants and native born Asians, also tend to have stronger preferences for Democrats rather than Republicans than the general population, and they tend to have progressive views on things like taxes and the welfare state.

http://www.npr.org/sections/itsallpolitics/2015/09/16/439574726/how-asian-american-voters-went-from-republican-to-democratic

I'm generally very favorably disposed to immigration. I know many immigrants and like them all personally, but it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that immigration pushes American politics further leftward.

Peter H writes:

Justin,

For some counter-evidence, I'd point you north to Canada, where strong support among new Canadians was a big part of the Conservative party victory in 2011, at least as argued in this paper:

http://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/papers-2012/Taylor.pdf

It is also important to consider that a lot of policy preferences are backed out of party preference, and not the other way around. And given that the Republican party in the US has been publicly pandering to anti-immigrant and especially anti-hispanic voters, it's unsurprising that those voters would lean Democratic.

It is quite possible for a conservative party to embrace and fight for the votes of immigrants, and to be successful. The Republicans haven't, but that doesn't mean that they can't, or that they wouldn't if the US increased immigration to Canadian levels where there are a lot more immigrant voters to court.

MikeDC writes:

@ Peter H,
If new Hispanic immigrant Democrats were simply Anti-Republican conservatives, we would see some shift to more conservative policy stances by the Democratic party. We see the opposite.

------------

In general, I don't see the equivalence between the social safety net law passed 50 years ago and the near suicidal California emissions proposal.

To put it numerically, the emissions proposal was so bad it dramatically increased the p value that David Henderson would leave the state. On the other hand, the passage of the Medicare/SS laws apparently did not prevent David from entering California (or the US) in the first place :)

RPLong writes:

To Peter H's point, I would add that it is hardly clear that Republican policies as-observed (i.e. beyond the rhetoric) are unequivocally better for economic freedom than Democratic policies. So even if it were true that immigrants tend to vote Democrat, that doesn't address David's concern 'that a large number of immigrants, not understanding the important role of economic freedom in raising our standards of living, will "vote it away."'

Justin D writes:

--"For some counter-evidence, I'd point you north to Canada, where strong support among new Canadians was a big part of the Conservative party victory in 2011, at least as argued in this paper:"--

How is this counter-evidence for the observation that immigrants to the US tend to be progressive?

--"It is also important to consider that a lot of policy preferences are backed out of party preference, and not the other way around. And given that the Republican party in the US has been publicly pandering to anti-immigrant and especially anti-hispanic voters, it's unsurprising that those voters would lean Democratic."--

I'm not sure I buy that the 40 percentage point gap between the general public and 1st generation Hispanics on the question of bigger/smaller government can be accounted for this way.

While I agree some people are Democrats without any policy related reason, most people who support Democrats do so because they support policies advocated by Democrats. This critique also cuts both ways - some of the few Hispanics who currently say they prefer smaller government are Republicans first and only support smaller government as a derivative of their party affiliation.

George W. Bush was a strong supporter of comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, as was John McCain in 2008, and yet 67% of Latinos still voted for Obama in 2008. 2008 was a great year for Democrats all around, to be sure, but 67% support for Obama by Hispanics was far higher than his support among non-Hispanic voters.

http://cis.org/latinovoting

http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/05/22/mccain-says-immigration-reform-should-be-top-priority/?_r=0

Republican politicians need to keep their base engaged, and that includes a sizable minority of people who think that immigration, especially illegal immigration, has been a disaster. It's dangerous to alienate your base in the hopes of flipping a few independents on the margin.

Justin D writes:

--"It is quite possible for a conservative party to embrace and fight for the votes of immigrants, and to be successful. The Republicans haven't, but that doesn't mean that they can't, or that they wouldn't if the US increased immigration to Canadian levels where there are a lot more immigrant voters to court."--

That strategy seems incredibly risky for Republicans and proponents of small government in particular.

Justin D writes:

--"To Peter H's point, I would add that it is hardly clear that Republican policies as-observed (i.e. beyond the rhetoric) are unequivocally better for economic freedom than Democratic policies. So even if it were true that immigrants tend to vote Democrat, that doesn't address David's concern 'that a large number of immigrants, not understanding the important role of economic freedom in raising our standards of living, will "vote it away."--

You're kidding me, right?

Republicans are hardly perfect on economic freedom, I readily admit, but no better than Democrats? Keep in mind that actually observed Republican policies, as well as Democratic policies, are constrained by and take into account political realities.

MikeP writes:

I have in mind three: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

Note that these are largely "take care of our own" laws. They are much easier to pass when society becomes more homogeneous, when you see that you are helping your parents or your parents' generation or your neighbors.

They should be harder to pass when immigration is high because (a) there's less of an "our own" feeling in the electorate and (b) the interests of new immigrant voters probably align less with those of native voters. E.g., why would immigrants support Medicare and Social Security, effectively taxing themselves to take care of natives' parents?

This logic does not follow in general for all anti-freedom legislation.

Alexandre Padilla writes:

Zach Gochenour (who was also Bryan Caplan's student) has a working paper with Alex Nowrasteh on The Political Externalities of Immigration: Evidence from the United States (http://ssrn.com/abstract=2500485) and it shows that immigration has little effect on the size of the Welfare State in the US.

By the way, given that in the US different states have different laws when it comes to immigrant eligibility toward welfare benefits, if it's true that immigrants come to the US to consumer government's welfare or they will push toward policies allowing them to get these benefits, we should expect immigrants moving to the states and there is no evidence of that either.

MikeP writes:

Is that slam dunk evidence that immigrants don't vote freedom away more than natives do? No. But it's pretty strong evidence.

On the other hand, the Progressive Era is rife with evidence that immigrants are more likely to vote away freedom more than natives are. That was the time of highest proportion of foreign born in the US, yet that was the time when government started taking away economic freedoms wholesale.

Indeed, this period culminated in what is perhaps the most anti-freedom law of all, the Immigration Act of 1924, which effectively closed the previously open borders of the US.

As Borjas's research consistently finds, the group most negatively affected by low-skilled immigration is the prior wave of low-skilled immigrants. The solution to this "problem" arrived at in 1924 was simple: prevent the next wave.

E. Harding writes:

"Is that slam dunk evidence that immigrants don't vote freedom away more than natives do? No. But it's pretty strong evidence."

-No control group. That's not any kind of evidence.

David R. Henderson writes:

@E. Harding,
No control group. That's not any kind of evidence.
You can have evidence without control groups. But, in any case, that doesn’t matter here. A large part of my exposition was about the control group: the programs that are the biggest problems for government growth began or were expanded when immigrant voting was relatively low. In terms of spending, government has grown more slowly as immigrants have become a bigger share of the electorate.

John Thacker writes:
but it seems hard to avoid the conclusion that immigration pushes American politics further leftward.

@Justin D:

This does not follow from your evidence. If, indeed, government grew faster in the '60s and '70s but immigrants vote for the left, then one perfectly plausible explanation is that the presence of immigrants causes the native born to vote more for the right than they would otherwise. That some of the most left-leaning states are very, very white, such as Vermont and Iowa, only bolsters this view.

(Asian-Americans are an interesting case. They tend to be right-of-center relative to the states in which they live, but mostly live in very left-of-center states. It also varies dramatically by country of origin. Vietnamese-Americans are quite Republican.)

Justin D writes:

--"A large part of my exposition was about the control group: the programs that are the biggest problems for government growth began or were expanded when immigrant voting was relatively low."--

David, what does this have to do with the situation in 2015? I don't think the argument is that immigrants are by nature for bigger government, only that it has been the recent experience in the US and there's no reason to expect it to suddenly change.

--"In terms of spending, government has grown more slowly as immigrants have become a bigger share of the electorate."--

Yes, but there are a lot of things going on. However, in isolation, which direction would having millions of more progressive voters tend to push things?

Suppose we consider an America 10 years from now after passing full amnesty for illegal immigrants and eases immigration restrictions, and compare it to an America 10 years from now in which all people and their descendants who weren't in America before 1980 are successfully deported.

In which scenario do you think it is more likely that America would have Medicare for All or expanded Social Security benefits or a 50% top marginal tax rate or a $15 minimum wage?

E. Harding writes:

@David R. Henderson

-This question is about whether a high-immigration U.S. in the 1920s-1960s would have, ceteris paribus, a bigger government than the actual U.S. in the 1920s-1960s, so a control group is at least a good idea, if not necessary. Government employment, certainly, has grown more slowly since the end of the 1960s, but Federal spending as a percentage of GDP is too closely correlated with unemployment to be a good facile indicator of anything other than the state of the economy. I certainly don't think anything but a small minority of immigrants, especially chain migrants, oppose Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security expansion.

ThomasH writes:

How odd to take transfer payments as a negative indicator of "economic freedom." Transfer payments affect economic freedom, I'd think, as they affect marginal tax rates * income taxed at that rate to pay for the transfers. I would think the increase in petty zoning restrictions, sectoral disparities in business taxation, occupational licensing, the nationalization of the airport security industry, and such nonsense are much bigger interference with economic freedom that tax rates. But I don't think immigrants have been behind these mistaken policies, so I do agree with your headline conclusion.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Note that these are largely "take care of our own" laws. They are much easier to pass when society becomes more homogeneous, when you see that you are helping your parents or your parents' generation or your neighbors. (...) This logic does not follow in general for all anti-freedom legislation."

But it was not most anti-economic freedom legislation made of "take care of our own" laws (at leat in the modern western world)?

Henri Hein writes:

Justin D, and others who conflate voting for Republicans with favoring freedom:

There is no evidence the republicans are any more freedom-loving than the democrats. Just as a grab-bag, JFK's tax cuts were as large as those of Reagan and Bush (at least as a proportion of national income); Johnson gave us the War on Poverty, but Reagan gave us the War on Drugs, which is arguably worse; the modern regulatory state was built under Nixon and GHW Bush; Clinton raised taxes, but so did his predecessor; GW Bush gave us a rapidly expanding federal government, No Child Left Behind, the Patriot Act, the prescription care expansion, 2 wars, the nationalization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, as well as a slew of other bailouts and handouts.

Congress is responsible as well, but the above examples were all pushed, or at least supported, by the presidents.

Andrew_FL writes:

The America of the 1960's and 1970's was a center left country. The America of the 2020's will be a social democracy.

That immigrants-actually, Latin Americans-are more left wing on the margin than "natives" of the United States, does not preclude that Americans are already pretty left wing.

Sure we can lament what a mess Americans have already made of their own country. That doesn't mean it couldn't be much, much worse.

Ditto to Henri Hein's comment. Republicans are arguably a center left party-they have to be, since America is a center left country. That doesn't mean they couldn't be a lot worse.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Justin D,
Suppose we consider an America 10 years from now after passing full amnesty for illegal immigrants and eases immigration restrictions, and compare it to an America 10 years from now in which all people and their descendants who weren't in America before 1980 are successfully deported.
Ok.
In which scenario do you think it is more likely that America would have Medicare for All or expanded Social Security benefits or a 50% top marginal tax rate or a $15 minimum wage?
The latter. The reason is that many of the workers would be unskilled and so there would be more pressure, not less, against that high a minimum wage. Also, natives would be less favoring of Medicare for all and expanded Social Security benefits. Not sure about the tax rate part.

The reason Asian Americans are unlikely to vote Republican is quite simple. Every time an Asian American is about to vote Republican, he looks at the comment sections of right-wing blogs and shudders.

Here's my theory:

The political values of an individual derive in large part from the individual's upbringing.
So the political environment in which the individual was raised has a big impact, as do parents and friends. Most people don't think about it much, or have any reason to learn free-market economics.

So an individual who grew up in a country with politics left of the US, in which the government purported to manage say 80% of everything, will tend to believe that government probably ought to manage about 80% of everything. Although they will not express it as I have (as a percentage of everything); they will just know (without considering why) a long list of things that OF COURSE government must do.

Immigrants political ideas do not change when they migrate. Since countries worth escaping have governments which purport to do a higher percentage of everything than does government in the US, most immigrants will bring values left of most people raised in the US.

People trying to escape leftist countries do not know what causes the relative poverty of their homelands. They just want a better life and can see evidence of where to get it. Most Americans do not know any better; only a few percent understand the cause of American prosperity (being economic freedom and property rights, in my view). But most native Americans grew up "seeing" that government only needed to manage about 40-60% of everything.

I developed these ideas a bit more in a 2003 paper for libertarians.

Peter H writes:

Justin,

My point in citing Canada is that if we adopted a more Canadian-style immigration system, we might end up with more right-leaning or right-persuadable immigrants than we get today.

You're assuming that if we raise immigration levels, we'll get more of the same immigrants. I don't think that's necessarily true. Canada (ex Quebec) is really extraordinarily culturally similar to the US. If Canada can integrate immigrants across its political spectrum, I think there's a decent case that a Canadian-style immigration policy in the US would have a somewhat similar effect here.

As well, I think a lot of this will come from the fact that more legal immigrants will reduce the prevalence of undocumented immigrants as a proportion of all immigrants, and I think the cohort of who you get as undocumented immigrants differs substantially from who you'd get if you were giving out more visas.

Keep in mind that Canada lets in immigrants at ~2.5x the US rate, and that ~20% of Canadians are foreign born, as opposed to ~14% of Americans.

MikeDC writes:

@ Peter H,
Does that include adopting a more Canadian style mix of immigrants?

Looking at the stats, it appears that over the recent period, approximately 10% of immigrants to Canada appear to be from the rest of the Americas excluding the US. In the US, that appears to be > 50% of the immigrants.

Swami writes:

I side with Justin.

My family includes many recent immigrants, and I am all for economic and market immigration. The problem is that these immigrants are not just voluntary market participants. They also bring with them political voice and power and they do tend to come from countries with less functional economic institutions and mindsets. As such there is a very large chance of them undermining the very institutions and mindsets which they are fleeing toward.

I have several ideas on how to allow market immigration and to minimize political degradation, but will keep these to myself unless requested. The point is that via compromise and experimentation' we can have both reasonable immigration and political preservation.

I will say that I believe Europe's immigrants are much more politically dangerous. They are radically illiberal.

Peter H writes:

MikeDC,

Yes, it likely does. A country-of-origin-neutral visa program will heavily weight towards Asian applicants, simply because there are many more potential immigrants there. Family unification will mean that we have persistently higher immigration from the Americas to the US, but the marginal immigrants under additional visas will likely be coming disproportionately from outside the Americas.

Thomas B writes:

Richard O. Hammer,

Your theory forgets to account for the fact that migrants to the United States are a self-selecting group. Thus, the population of my home country is to the left of the US population, but I personally am to the right (economically) of the US population, and by a wide margin.

That's why I'm here, and not there.

Most of those I grew up with would find the US intolerably right-wing.

That's why they're there, and not here.

And I've found the same is true of most of my immigrant friends.

Most of the real lefties I know are US-born. They hear the rhetoric, and they've never seen the consequences.

@Thomas B,
Good point. My basic theory may be refined to account for people such as you, people whose decision to migrate may be affected by politics.

But I still suppose that most migrants see economic promise in the US and Western European countries, while not having the education to see that the economic promise is caused by a relatively-hands-off government.

Greg G writes:

It's hard to emigrate from your native country. That means immigrants tend to have a good work ethic and be risk takers. That makes them natural entrepreneurs and potential Republican voters.

But the xenophobia of the Republican Party is preventing that. As George Will said, if you are a candidate and the voters don't think they like you, you have a problem. If you are a candidate and the voters think you don't like them, you are dead.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

We've had over 200 years of hand-wringing about immigrant political views. And yet the US is still one of the most economically, politically, and personally free countries on the planet.

Here is Thomas Jefferson getting all worked up about it in Notes on Virginia Q.VIII, 1782. ME 2:118:

"[Is] rapid population [growth] by as great importations of foreigners as possible... founded in good policy?... They will bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbounded licentiousness, passing, as is usual, from one extreme to another. It would be a miracle were they to stop precisely at the point of temperate liberty. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children. In proportion to their number, they will share with us the legislation. They will infuse into it their spirit, warp and bias its direction, and render it a heterogeneous, incoherent, distracted mass... If they come of themselves, they are entitled to all the rights of citizenship: but I doubt the expediency of inviting them by extraordinary encouragements."

LD Bottorff writes:

When considering the impact of immigration on elections, we must remember to consider the participation rate. It hardly matters if new immigrants are more likely to favor big-government policies if they are much less likely to vote. I know that Rush Limbaugh constantly cites California as an example of the direction that immigrants will take a state, but Texas and Florida also have large immigrant populations, and they don't seem to be going the direction of California.

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