Familiarity breeds a lack of contempt

Illegal immigrants: A big issue where there aren't any.

Published November 6, 2006 10:18PM (EST)

Strange thing: Immigration is theoretically a big issue in this year's election, but out here in Northern California, not a single one of the campaign commercials I've seen on television has mentioned it.

Is this because Northern California is such a bastion of open-border liberalism that candidates know it would be political suicide? Or is it proof of something else entirely: The fewer undocumented immigrants a congressional district has, the more likely politicians are to make hay over illegal immigration.

Evidence for this assertion comes from analysis conducted by the pro-immigration Immigration Policy Center, which analyzed the number of undocumented immigrants in every one of the nation's 435 congressional districts and then compared that to the vote cast by the district's representative on H.R. 4437, the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act, passed by the House last December.

Surprise: Familiarity breeds a lack of contempt. Representatives of districts with relatively few undocumented immigrants voted for the bill, while representatives with relatively more voted against it. There are fewer than 5,000 undocumented immigrants, for example, in the district represented by Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a vociferous backer of draconian enforcement of tough anti-illegal immigration laws.

Part of the reason for the breakdown is partisan. Democrats generally voted against the bill, and districts with a relatively large number of undocumented immigrants tend to be represented by Democrats.

However, partisan affiliation alone does not explain this vote. Roughly three-fifths of the admittedly few Republicans who opposed H.R. 4437 represent districts with 15,000 or more undocumented immigrants, while four-fifths of the Democrats who supported the bill are from districts with fewer than 15,000 undocumented immigrants. More importantly, 67 percent of all representatives who supported the bill come from districts with an undocumented population of less than 15,000, while 62 percent of the representatives who opposed the bill have 15,000 or more undocumented immigrants in their districts. As this pattern illustrates, the constituencies of most representatives who supported H.R. 4437 experience relatively little impact from undocumented immigration. As a result, these representatives are free to ignore the need for genuine immigration reform and focus instead on fostering a public image of being "tough" on undocumented immigrants.

But a more recent study by the same group notes that undocumented immigrants have only recently begun to move into areas where they previously had little presence. Which raises a question that poll watchers in the future will be paying close attention to. Will the new demographics result in a muting of anti-immigration rhetoric? Or is it in fact these first preliminary forays by undocumenteds into new territory that has pressed the age-old hot-button of immigration anew?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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