President Barack Obama's decision to make an executive order on immigration amounts to a dangerous gamble for Democrats who could face a backlash from voters concerned about illegal immigration, said Zoltan Hajnal, a professor of political science at the University of California-San Diego.
In an opinion piece for The New York Times,
Hajnal contends that by aligning with an issue that many Americans believe is a negative social force, the party risks pushing the white voting majority to support Republicans.
"President Obama's executive order eliminating the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants is good policy. It is the right thing to do. But it is a dangerous move for the Democratic Party," Hajnal wrote.
He said that while the plans will go down well with Latinos and Asian-Americans and therefore solidify and expand their existing support for the Democratic Party, it is important to realize that those constituencies represent just 11 percent of the electorate.
By contrast, he said, whites represent 75 percent of the electorate and so they are far more influential in deciding the fate of political parties in the coming years.
"Unfortunately, for the Democratic Party, the data suggest that immigration very much matters for whites," he said, noting that the idea of immigration is associated with an image of dependence on public services and a threat to low-skilled workers.
He said that polls show that an overwhelming majority of white Americans believe illegal immigration is a serious problem and one-third think all forms of immigration are bad for the country.
"Put it all together: Many white Americans see that America is changing, believe that immigration is driving many of the negative changes and know that one party stands largely on the side of immigrants while the other party stands largely in opposition. For many whites, this is a powerful motivation to vote Republican," he wrote.
Hajnal pointed out that 75 percent of voters who felt that most illegal immigrants should be deported voted Republican, and of those who believe immigration is the country's most important problem, 74 percent supported the GOP.
"Mr. Obama's approach — moving to the left — makes all kinds of sense from a policy standpoint. The data show that immigrants are generally not a burden on America. They work hard. They use relatively few government services. They contribute to the economy.
"A vast majority of the undocumented have committed no crime other than crossing the border. They should be allowed to stay," he said, but added that the Democrats' chosen position may be handing Republicans a political advantage for decades.
"As long as whites represent a vast majority of voters and as long as most remain skeptical of immigrants, supporting immigrants' rights will be likely to hurt the Democrats. The dilemma isn't going away," he concluded.
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