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What Republicans Really Mean When They Talk About Immigration

It's easy to chalk up the GOP's hard right midterm turn on immigration to conservative fearmongering and vague doomsday panic, that's not the whole story.

by Livia Gershon
Oct 29 2014, 4:00am

An anti-immigration campaign ad for New Hampshire Republican Senate candiate Scott Brown. Screenshot via YouTube

When New Hampshire Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown squared off against incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen in their first televised debate last week, he kept coming back to one issue, over and over again: security at the border. When answering questions about Ebola and the Islamic State, he suggested that both the disease and the militant group might travel with people coming into the US without papers. When asked about abortion, after defending his somewhat ambiguous pro-choice record, he said women shouldn't be reduced to a single issue and that they care about other things—like, say, securing the border.

New Hampshire shares a border with Canada, but that's not the one Brown was talking about. The state is about as far away from the Rio Grande as you can get in this country, in terms of both space and demographics. Just 6 percent of New Hampshire residents are foreign-born, according to US Census data, and less than a quarter of those—about 1 percent of the state's population—come from below the southern border.

Brown, a former Massachusetts senator who lost to Elizabeth Warren in 2012, hadn't really had much to say on immigration until this election (and his detractors have made much of the fact that he missed all six hearings on border security that he was eligible to attend during his two years in Congress). But over the summer, when an unprecedented wave of undocumented migrant children arrived at the border, Brown, like most other Republicans running for office this year, was suddenly obsessed with immigration. He mentions it at nearly every rally, in every talk-radio interview, on every cable news hit, managing to slip in ominous illusions to "amnesty" and the Islamic State and border fences, no matter how irrelevant; his campaign ads feature shadowy images of desert border crossings and Islamic militants interposed with grainy footage of Shaheen and Barack Obama. And the funny thing is, it seems to be working: Since trailing his opponent by 10 points in July, Brown has pulled even, and is now virtually tied with her in recent polls—a surge that coincides with Brown's hard right turn toward the border.

Republicans have long used immigration as a dog-whistle to rally the party's conservative base and incite vague fear about national security threats often more imagined than real, like the imminent arrival of Guantánamo Bay inmates in Kansas, or more recent reports that the Department of Homeland Security is stocking up on blank green cards and immigrant work permits in what is obviously a plan to enact mass amnesty after the midterms. Perhaps more accurately, conservatives argue that giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship would essentially amount to handing 11 million free votes to Democrats.

"It's a way to take over, have a one-party country," said Cameron Carey, a volunteer for the Brown campaign in Nashua. Voters, he added, are worried that immigrants will raise crime rates, suck up government benefits, and overcrowd schools. "It's a very important issue, and they all say, 'Follow the law—hat's the way to begin.'"

The anti-immigration grandstanding isn't limited to New Hampshire. In states and congressional districts around the country—particularly those with few Latino voters—Republicans have relentlessly campaigned against any kind of comprehensive immigration reform, fearmongering about the the terrifying diseases and terrorists that will seep across the border if the US doesn't build a giant fence to keep them out. It's a message that will likely backfire on the GOP when Republicans will have to turn around and convince Hispanic voters that they don't actually want to deport their families en masse.

But while it's easy to chalk up harsh immigration chatter to Tea Party xenophobes, in New Hampshire at least, that's not the whole story. Despite the state's relative lack of immigrants, concern about the issue is surprisingly pervasive in the Granite State: According to data from Reuters/Ipsos polling, 58 percent of Americans think most or all illegal immigrants should be deported; in New Hampshire, 71 percent do.

Ipsos spokesperson Julia Clark said the survey's sample size for the state isn't huge, but it's big enough to be significant. "That says to me that yeah, there's something systematically different," she said.

At first blush, it seems weird that fears about illegal immigrants would be so pervasive in a state that has virtually no Hispanic immigrants. But here's the thing about attitudes toward immigration: Research shows over and over again that they don't have much to do with self-interest. A 2013 review of about 100 studies in the US and elsewhere found that a "significant majority" found no link between job competition and opinions on immigration.

"The evidence indicates that immigration attitudes are not clustered by geography, occupation, or industry in ways consistent with labor market competition—or, for that matter, with fiscal threat," the authors wrote.

In other words, people don't develop anti-immigrant attitudes because they have the sort of jobs that are likely to be taken by lower-paid immigrants, or because their kids' schools are struggling to accommodate kids who can't speak English. Instead, the studies found that people who are worried about the state of the nation's economy and the general direction society is going are much more likely to oppose immigration, making it a sort of proxy issue for other economic and social insecurities.

"I think it's more, really, 'Is this going to change the nature of our community? Is it going to change our way of life?'" said Jack Citrin, a political science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies attitudes toward immigration. "It's not often fashionable for people to say these things, but there's a lot of evidence that that's what they think."

All of which suggests that when Republicans in New Hampshire (or Kansas or Iowa or Arkansas) warn about undocumented criminals and Ebola, they're actually talking about all of the other fears and insecurities brewing in the panicked id of the national electorate. As for Brown, Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said voters' general anxiety about a lot of issues does seem to play a role in the Republican candidate's focus on immigration. The center has found that people in New Hampshire rarely mention immigration when they're asked an open-ended question about important issues, but when they're asked directly about illegal immigration, a majority call it a "very serious" problem.

When Brown talks about immigration, Smith said, he's really talking about a lot of things that matter to voters: economic populism, national security, disease control, race relations, the rule of law—"is the government doing what it's supposed to do?"—and, importantly, opposition to President Obama, who's even less popular in New Hampshire than in the nation as a whole.

"I don't think it's just a one-off issue," Smith said. "I think it works as a political issue because it has all of those multidimensional aspects."

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