Once you get past all of the posturing, opposition to immigration reform among congressional Republicans is at least partially based on self-preservation. There is a widespread belief that Mexican immigrants who become citizens are overwhelmingly disposed to vote Democratic.
Newly published research suggests that’s a complete misreading of the facts. According to this analysis, politically engaged Mexicans who move to the U.S. fall all over the ideological spectrum, very much like native-born Americans.
What’s more, according to University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist Sergio Wals, those on the right are more inclined to participate in the American electoral process than those on the left.
The notion that offering citizenship to undocumented immigrants will help Democrats has been widely discussed in recent months. In April, Politico asserted that immigrant reform could “produce an electoral bonanza for Democrats.”
That analysis was quickly refuted by Sean Trende ofReal Clear Politics, but fear among Republicans hasn’t abated. Just last week, longtime conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly insisted that Mexican immigrants “don’t have any Republican inclinations at all.”
In fact, “The foreign-born segment of the population is more up-for-grabs than generally depicted in electoral terms,” Wals writes in the journal Electoral Studies.
Wals uses data from two surveys of Mexican immigrants living in the U.S.: One conducted in 2003, and another in 2008. Both groups (1,023 people in one survey, 399 in the other) were asked about their interest in politics, political leanings, and interest in participating in the electoral process in their new country.
He reports the level of interest in politics remains quite consistent for the immigrants. If you’re into politics in your home country, you’ll probably be just as interested in your new land; if you were apathetic there, you’ll likely stay on the sidelines here.
Ideology also remains relatively consistent, with those who voted for right-wing parties in Mexico expressing support for conservative causes in the U.S. The same was true for those on the left. But actual participation in the electoral process is another matter.
“Immigrants who stand at the center and the right end of the ideological spectrum are indeed more likely than their left-leaning counterparts to express interest in participating in American elections, regardless of how many years they have spent in the United States,” Wals writes. “In fact, immigrants who stand on the right end of the continuum have a more than 90 percent chance of engaging in American elections, regardless of how long they have lived in their host country.”
In contrast, he reports, left-leaning immigrants only gradually move into the American political process, and never at the rate of their conservative counterparts. Approximately 52 percent of that sample expressed the intention to vote after living in this country for 10 years. After 17 years, that number increased to 66 percent—still far below the interest level of conservatives.
Wals suspects one reason for this may be that there is no real equivalent in the U.S. to the leftist PRD party in Mexico. Democrats align more with the PRI party, while Republicans are close cousins to the PAN. So those who were loyal to the PRD may find it more difficult to find a party that strongly reflects their beliefs.
Given that fact, and the high engagement level of self-described conservatives, Wals concludes that the Republicans have a real opportunity among these new voters.
“There is no single rationale inherent in the results of this study that the current advantage held by the Democratic Party over the Republican Party, in terms of electoral support among U.S. citizens of Mexican origin, could not be altered,” he writes.
But he then adds the catch: For this to occur, the GOP must “succeed in implementing different strategies and more effective means to reach out and engage this segment of the population.” Such as, say, passing an immigration reform bill.