In his hot pink tie and starched white shirt, Ted Cruz strolled through the palm tree-flanked Border Patrol station of Edinburg, Texas, this week, before taking his place at a wood podium to caution his audience about the threat illegal immigrants pose to the Land of the Free .
"One hears from the ground that the security threats remain significant and that we need adequate manpower, adequate tools to secure our border and protect our nation," he told reporters who'd gathered for his visit to the small town in the Rio Grande Valley.
Standing on the glistening grassy lawn, the Texas Republican warned that cartels controlled the area, and said more "boots on the ground" were the only way to stop the flood of migrants streaming in from Latin America. "It's important for every presidential candidate to address seriously the problem of securing our border and to have a serious plan and to demonstrate a willingness to enforce the law," said Cruz, who just happens to be one of those candidates.
By now, this border grandstanding is familiar—a requisite bit of political theater for Cruz and any of the other 9,000 Republican thinking about running for president. With the 2016 race underway, the candidates have warned loudly against the issue of illegal immigration, clamoring for border fences, moats, and armed drones to protect the 1,945-mile border, and shouting down anyone who doesn't see that US immigration policy is first and foremost about fortifying our country from the flood of Mexican and Central American newcomers who shatter American peace and prosperity.
"You can't have an open border and a welfare state. Well, we've got both," Kentucky Senator Rand Paul scoffed to an Arizona radio host last month. "We have a completely open border and an enormous welfare state."
Mike Huckabee voiced a similar sentiment on his campaign website, warning that we'll all turn into nihilists if the US fails to secure the border. "Without a secure border, nothing matters," he writes. "We have drug cartels running reckless on our southern border, and the Washington establishment wants to reward illegal immigrants with amnesty and citizenship."
Their solutions for how to fix the crisis are also predictably extreme: Rick Perry, who kicked off his second presidential campaign last week, likes to boast that as governor of Texas he spent $800 million to send extra state agents in the southern region, a policy that his successor extended this week. Rick Santorum is also still at it,suggesting in an interview with Breitbart News this spring that the US erect a Gaza-style barrier with "barbed wire, a screening fence, and a patrol road along it" for the "out of control" border.
But for all this right-wing obsession with "amnesty" and incursions on the southern border, Republicans don't seem to have noticed that immigration to the US has changed dramatically—and that the problem they so aggressively promise to solve may not be so much of a problem any more. Because for the first time in decades, most of the people trying to migrate to the US aren't coming across the southern border at all, but from Asia, primarily India and China.
According to a recent report from the US Census Bureau, 40 percent of new immigrants coming into the US in 2013 were from Asian countries, while just a quarter hailed from Latin America. Out of 1.2 million migrants total, about 147,000 of them were Chinese, 129,000 Indian, and 125,000 Mexican, the census found.
The numbers represent a dramatic shift. For decades, Mexico was the biggest source of new migrants to the US, outpacing India and China sixfold in the early years of the 21st century. Since 2007, though, immigration from Mexico has steadily declined, and illegal crossings have hit a 40-year low, as Mexico's economy has improved and the Department of Homeland Security has ramped up its capabilities at the border. Meanwhile immigration from Asia, especially India and China, has ticked up rapidly.
"The most recent wave of immigrants has largely been from Latin America, and to a lesser extent, Asia," the census report explained. "Whether these recent trends signal a new and distinct wave of immigration is yet to be seen."
What this means for immigration policy also remains to be seen. For one thing,Asian immigrants follow a significantly different trajectory to get to the US than their Latino counterparts. While about half of immigrants from Mexico and Central America arrive in the US illegally, just 13 percent of Asian migrants are undocumented, according to a May study by the Migration Policy Institute.
Asian immigrants also tend to be more affluent and suburban, and join the workforce in different segments of the US economy, including in high-skilled jobs, said Randy Capps, who runs US programs at the Migration Policy Institute. The influx of skilled immigrant workers from Asia could put added pressure on Washington—and on the 2016 presidential candidates—to shift their focus away from undocumented workers, he said, toward a broader overhaul of the legal immigration system, including reforming the caps on temporary and permanent visa programs.
Of particular interest for the 2016 candidates is the H-1B visa program for highly specialized workers. Business leaders (and campaign donors), particularly those in Silicon Valley, have been lobbying Washington hard to reform the program, which is currently capped at 85,000 visas annually—a quota that is usually filled in just a few days.
"There's almost a consensus that we need more highly skilled workers particularly in math, science and healthcare," Capps said, noting that immigrants from India and China currently receive the bulk of H-1B visas. "Like most affluent countries the US [average age] is getting older...and without younger workers through immigration we'd have trouble supporting our growth."
Another area where candidates may start to focus is on the US system of per-country visa caps, which allocate about 25,000 annual visas to immigrants of a given nationality, regardless of the size of their home country. The rule was originally intended to prevent discrimination against particular nationalities, but also puts large nations like China and India at a distinct disadvantage.
"This was a way [for the federal government] to force equality but what that does it mean?" said Phil Wolgin, associate director of immigration policy for the Center of American Progress. "India and China are treated same way Luxembourg is treated."
Pressure to shift the immigration debate could come from the ballot box. Like most other minority voters, have tended to lean Democratic in recent elections, with 73 percent casting for Obama in 2012 , a trend that might be attributed to the high concentration of Asians in deep-blue California and the Northeast.
Currently, though, Asians make up just 5 percent of the US population, and as such have had only a marginal impact on national politics. But as their numbers multiply, so does the group's ability to shift a presidential race. And experts say the group could turn into a swing vote, particularly given rising suburban affluence among Asian Americans.
"In the not too distant past Asians swung toward Republican, in the 1990s," said William Frey, a demographer specializing in migration and fellow with the Brookings Institute. "They still don't vote [Democratic] in huge margins like blacks do so they could swing depending on the candidate." He added that Asian voters could even start to swing the vote in a few key states in 2016.
"Nevada and Virginia are swing states where the Asian population is growing, and these are battleground states," Frey said. In Nevada, he noted, the Asian population is about 8 percent, enough to tip the scales in a tight race.
But even as the US immigration landscape shifts, 2016 candidates aren't likely to abandon the idea that hordes of Latinos are scampering and swimming across the border to sell drugs and sign up for Obamacare. The border is an incendiary political symbol, lodged firmly in the conservative imagination, and as such will probably remain a top priority for Republicans trying to gin up the base in an election year.
"There's a general perception by a lot of people in country that the country is still being overrun by immigrants," said Frey. "Since we have large population of Hispanics they misinterpret it as being because of an influx of new immigrants. But rationally right now it doesn't mean that much because illegal immigration has curtailed."
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