The Politicization of Anti-immigrant Sentiment

By Steven J. Gold

The US is a nation of immigrants. It is the number one immigrant destination in the world, with a foreign-born population comprising 41 million persons, 61% of whom have entered since 2000 (Zong and Batalova 2015), and a record of extending refugee status to three million persons since 1975 (Inkpen and Igielnik 2014). Because of these numbers, many pundits and observers contend that the US population has traditionally held a highly favorable view of immigrants. Accordingly, recent expressions of hostility towards immigrants and refugees by wide swaths of the American public and the embrace of an anti-immigrant platform by one of the country’s two major political parties is seen as evidence of a fundamental transformation in American attitudes towards migration.

This article argues that recent expressions of anti-immigrant hostility should not be seen as indicative of a transformed understanding of immigration in American society. Rather, recent changes in the expression of anti-immigrant sentiment and action can, to a large degree, be attributed to the increased opportunity of individuals, groups, social movements and political organizations to express such opinions in a wide range of visible, mainstream and institutionalized contexts that were largely unavailable prior to the 1990s.

Longstanding anti-immigrant views

The historical record reveals that from the late 19th century until the dawn of the Cold War, popular hostility towards immigration was significant and often incorporated in legislative and governmental action. An array of laws, including the Johnson Reed Act, excluded immigrants from various countries and capped the total number of entrants to 150,000 annually from the 1920s until the passage of the Hart Cellar Act of 1965.

Reflecting Depression-era sentiments regarding the admission of refugees, in July 1938, fewer than 5 percent of Americans surveyed at the time believed that the United States should raise its immigration quotas or encourage political refugees fleeing fascist states in Europe — the vast majority of whom were Jewish — to voyage across the Atlantic. Two-thirds of the respondents agreed with the proposition that “we should try to keep them out.” (Tharoor 2015).

The Cold War and the bipartisan consensus on immigration

From the dawn of the Cold War until the late 1980s, however, international concerns rather than public opinion was a significant driver of US immigration policy. Seeking to discredit communism, major policies regarding immigration and the admission of refugees were implemented by a bipartisan Washington consensus. Within this context, the admission of several million refugees from Cuba, Southeast Asia and the Soviet Bloc, together with generous support for their resettlement, was quickly approved (Gold 2010). National priorities meant that the objections of local residents in impacted communities were largely ignored.

Similar factors – including an effort to appeal to recently independent nations and the pro-equality climate of the Voting Rights Act passed in the same year– supported the passage of the Hart Cellar immigration bill in 1965, which removed nationality quotas and played a major role in increasing the arrival of immigrants to the US since that time.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War context and unprecedented prosperity did reverse a degree of popular antipathy towards admission of migrants and refugees. For example, in 1956, only 34% of the American public felt that too many refugees from the Soviet Union’s crackdown on Hungary were being admitted (Harwood 1986).
Popular support for the acceptance of immigrants and refugees, however, proved to be rather weak and short-lived. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, a revival of restrictionism was documented (Harwood 1986). In 1979, Gallop revealed that 57% of the public opposed admitting the Vietnamese boat people and only 32% favored their admission. In a March 1982 Roper Survey, 66 percent of those polled said they wanted immigration cut back and only 4% said they wanted more aliens admitted (Harwood 1986).

While the bipartisan consensus disregarded objections to immigration, observers described how immigration policy was disproportionately influenced by pro-immigrant organizations affiliated with religious and liberal causes, which had the effect of silencing the voices of restrictionists. The staying power of the bipartisan consensus on immigration can be seen in the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (also known as the Simpson-Mazzoli Bill) that was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. It provided permanent residency to approximately 2.6 million formerly undocumented immigrants who had resided in the US prior to 1982, and for the first time penalized employers for hiring undocumented workers. The bill’s backers represented the two major US parties. The largely non-political nature of immigration policy-making during the era is demonstrated by the fact that the bill’s sponsors represented Wyoming and Kentucky — states with very few immigrants — protecting sponsors from the reactions of voters invested in local migration debates.

The end of the bipartisan consensus and the politicization of anti-immigration movements

Only a few years after the passage of IRCA, local and international political events had the effect of unraveling the consensus on immigration. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that the Cold War agenda lost its influence as the major factor in shaping bipartisan policy. This opened the door for using the growing resentment against immigration as a wedge issue on the local, state and national level. It was Pete Wilson, the incumbent governor of California who was doing poorly in the polls as he faced reelection in 1994, who demonstrated the electoral potential of anti-immigrant opinion. Basing his campaign on the negative effects of immigration and endorsing the anti-immigration “Save Our State” Proposition 187 which sought to deny an array of benefits for undocumented immigrants, Wilson was able to mobilize voters and win re-election. Prop 187 was approved by majority of white, black and Asian voters and enjoyed the support of nearly a third of Latinos, despite its targeting Mexican migrants as the source of California’s social and economic troubles. (Cannon and Booth 1999).

Following the success of anti-immigrant mobilization associated with Wilson’s re-election and the passage of Prop 187, California voters were provided the opportunity to express their hostility towards benefits for immigrants (and others) in an anti-affirmative action proposition (Prop 209 of 1996), and an anti-bilingual education measure (Prop 227 of 1998), both of which passed. While Proposition 187 was declared unconstitutional, the electoral benefits associated with appealing to popular hostility to immigrants were clearly demonstrated by the success of the Wilson strategy.

Since that time, anti-immigrant mobilization has shaped the fate of individual candidates, legislative agendas, organizations and social movements on the local, state and national level. For example, President Bill Clinton’s welfare reform program of 1996 included a variety of measures that denied immigrants benefits and streamlined their deportation. President George W. Bush, whose initial platform included a strategy to normalize the status of undocumented immigrants, captured about 35% of the Latino vote in his 2000 election and over 40% in 2004. However, the next Republican presidential candidate, John McCain – whose candidacy was associated with increased anti-immigrant rhetoric by his party — received only about 33% of the Latino vote in 2008. Most recently, President Barak Obama, who has enjoyed considerable support from immigrant communities, has maintained an unprecedented program of immigrant deportation, which remains a source of conflict with this constituency.

Current impacts

In retrospect, we see several outcomes reflecting the increased politicization of anti-immigrant attitudes. First, the politicization of anti-immigrant sentiment has been a successful strategy, at least in the short term. Just as the adoption and encouragement of an anti-immigrant agenda turned the tide for California Governor Pete Wilson in 1994, so has it mobilized voters in a variety of other locations. In fact, the anti-immigrant agenda has become one of the bedrock values of the Republican base, such that few members of this party are able to make even weak appeals on behalf of immigrants.

At the same time, the mobilization of anti-immigrant sentiment has imposed significant costs on its proponents. Immigrants and their descendants tend to be slow to naturalize and even those eligible to vote do so in relatively small numbers. Despite this, immigrants and the political organizations that represent them – a group of growing demographic importance in many locations throughout the US – generally remember political actors associated with anti-immigrant agendas. As a consequence, candidates and parties favoring anti-immigrant programs are unlikely to receive many votes from their opponents and often mobilize opponents.

This is especially the case in states that include large numbers of voters who identify with immigrant communities and interests. Given that a growing fraction of the US population is of recent immigrant origins and that the Republican Party is staunchly anti-immigrant, political and demographic realities have the effect of reducing the electability of Republican politicians in many areas of the US. Despite this, political organizations and sections of the American public are increasingly interested in expressing anti-immigrant views, such that anti-immigrant, fringe-type organizations have lost their place in the American political landscape, as their extremist views are now accepted within the mainstream Republican Party.

Finally, despite the growing demand for harsh anti-immigrant policies, few of the goals of such movements – such as the denial of basic rights and services for undocumented immigrants, the mass deportation of migrant populations, the suspension of birthright citizenship and other measures — have been implemented, largely because these matters are beyond the influence of the electoral constituencies calling for such changes.

In sum, the degree of anti-immigrant sentiment currently displayed in US society is sizeable and strongly-felt. However, the reasons for the expression of this sentiment can be at least partly attributed to the politicization of anti-immigrant feelings. During a significant part of our recent history, the American public has been at least moderately opposed to the entry of immigrants and refugees. However, it has only been since the 1990s, when office seekers and political parties sought to welcome and mobilize such sentiments as a means of achieving political advantage, that large parts of the electorate began to express anti-immigrant agendas as central political concerns. In the view of this writer, this development is negative, as it enhances polarization, fragments American society, and prevents the furtherance of agendas that are consistent with the basic values and central goals of US society.


Cannon, Lou and William Booth 1999 “Gov. Wilson Lifted State, Sank Party” Washington Post, January 2, Page A1.

Gold, Steven J. 2010 “After the Cold War: Comparing Soviet Jewish and Vietnamese Youth in the 1980s to Today’s Young Refugees,” in How to Help Young Immigrants Succeed edited by Gerald Holton and Gerhard Sonnert, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 75-88.

Harwood, Edwin 1986 “American Public Opinion and U. S. Immigration Policy” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 487, Immigration and American Public Policy (Sep): 201-212.

Inkpen, Christopher and Ruth Igielnik 2014 “Where refugees to the U.S. come from” July 28.

Tharoor, Ishaan 2015 “What Americans thought of Jewish refugees on the eve of World War II” Washington Post, November 17.

Zong, Jie and Jeanne Batalova 2015 “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States” February 26.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants and Refugees

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