The Border and the Ballot Box;
Immigration has a fantastically complicated political history in the United States. It has produced enough populist anger to elect Know Nothing mayors of Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington and San Francisco, all in the 1850s and, more recently, to help Lou Dobbs reinvent his television career and become a best-selling author. But when national politicians have tried to seize on such anger, they have usually failed — and failed quickly. “While immigration has always roiled large sections of the electorate,” said Eric Rauchway, a historian at the University of California, Davis, “it has never been the basis for a national election, one way or the other.”
That appears to be truer than ever in 2008. Mr. McCain will all but clinch the Republican nomination on Tuesday with victories in the Ohio and Texas primaries. In the Texas campaign, except for a couple of obligatory questions about a border fence during a Democratic debate, immigration has been the dog that didn’t bark. The candidates who would have made an issue of it exited the race long ago.
There is, however, one more historical parallel to consider: as a political matter, immigration probably won’t go away on its own. The anti-immigration movements of the past may not have created presidents, but they did change the country. The Chinese Exclusion Act helped cut the immigration rate by more than 40 percent at the close of the 19th century. The Nativist movement of the 1910s and 1920s had even more success passing laws to reduce the flow.
Unlike those earlier immigration waves, the current one includes a large number of illegal immigrants, which creates its own political dynamic. The subject also plays into the economic anxiety of today that stems from decades of slow wage growth and is now aggravated by the possibility of a recession. Perhaps most important, this immigration wave could turn out to be the biggest of them all. Last month, the Pew Research Center reported that the percentage of Americans born overseas would break a century-old record sometime before 2025, if current trends continued.