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< Back to current issue of Immigration Daily < Back to current issue of Immigrant's Weekly

Playing Politics On Immigration: Congress Favors Image Over Substance In Passing H.R. 4437

by Rob Paral for The Immigration Policy Center

Congressional representatives who supported H.R. 4437—the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005—are most likely to represent districts with relatively few undocumented immigrants.

In December 2005 the House of Representatives chose to ignore the need for comprehensive immigration reform, opting instead for legislation that makes a show of “getting tough” on undocumented immigrants while utterly ignoring the causes of undocumented immigration and the vital contributions that immigrant workers make to the U.S. economy. Despite the public’s demand for a sensible and straightforward response to the ongoing problem of undocumented immigration, the House passed H.R. 4437, the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act. This bill would, among other things, make felons of all undocumented immigrants as well as persons who assist them, a group that potentially includes religious workers, social workers, and librarians.

One explanation for why so many congressional representatives would choose to spend precious legislative time on a proposal that offers little hope of actually reducing undocumented immigration might be that the members of Congress with the fewest undocumented immigrants in their districts were the most likely to support the bill. Lawmakers whose constituents experience relatively little impact from undocumented immigration have the luxury of playing politics on the issue rather than confronting it directly.

Representatives from Districts with Few Undocumented Immigrants Were the Most Likely to Support the Bill

There are 96 congressional districts that have fewer than 5,000 undocumented immigrants. Most of these districts are largely rural and located in sections of Appalachia, the Midwest, and the Mississippi Valley that are experiencing little economic growth and low levels of immigration in general. Constituents in many of these districts face tough economic times, but the cause is not immigration. Immigrants are attracted to regions of economic dynamism and job expansion. This is why greater numbers of undocumented immigrants are found in western states that have agricultural, livestock, fishing, and tourist economies that need the kinds of less-skilled labor that undocumented immigrants often provide.

Undocumented immigrants in the 96 lowest-immigration districts make up no more than 0.8 percent of the population (each of the 435 congressional districts has roughly the same total population: about 650,000 as of 2000[1]). The votes on H.R. 4437 in these districts tell you something about immigration politics in the United States today. The supposed threat from undocumented immigration is enough to rally voters and move levers of power even in areas where the actual impact is miniscule. Among representatives from districts with the smallest populations of undocumented immigrants, 74 percent (71 out of 96) voted for the bill: 90 percent of Republicans (56 out of 62) and 44 percent of Democrats (15 out of 34) {see table 1}.




Representatives from Districts with Many Undocumented Immigrants Were the Most Likely to Oppose the Bill

The voting pattern of the representatives from the 61 congressional districts with 50,000 or more undocumented immigrants tells a different story. These districts for the most part are located in densely populated urban areas such as New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and are relatively small in geographic size compared to rural districts that include many counties. In these high-immigration districts, the undocumented alone can account for as much as one-fifth of the total population. As a result, representatives who hail from these areas are familiar with undocumented immigrants and their impact on local communities. Among representatives from districts with the largest populations of undocumented immigrants, a mere 5 percent (3 out of 61) supported the bill: none of the 53 Democrats and only 3 of the 8 Republicans.

The inverse relationship between support for H.R. 4437 and the actual presence of undocumented immigrants in a representative’s district represents a widespread voting pattern. Among all Democrats, those who voted in favor of the bill had roughly 10,000 undocumented immigrants in their districts. Democrats who opposed the bill, on the other hand, had about 37,400. Among all Republicans, the same pattern holds: those voting for H.R. 4437 had an average of 14,500 undocumented immigrants in their districts, while those who voted against the bill had an average of 30,800 {see table 2}.




Political Posturing on Immigration

There is no denying that H.R. 4437 passed largely along party lines. Only 17 out of 232 Republicans voted against the bill (12 did not vote), while only 36 out of 203 Democrats supported the bill (2 did not vote). However, partisan affiliation alone does not explain this vote. Roughly three-fifths of the admittedly few Republicans who opposed H.R. 4437 represent districts with 15,000 or more undocumented immigrants, while four-fifths of the Democrats who supported the bill are from districts with fewer than 15,000 undocumented immigrants. More importantly, 67 percent of all representatives who supported the bill come from districts with an undocumented population of less than 15,000, while 62 percent of the representatives who opposed the bill have 15,000 or more undocumented immigrants in their districts {see table 3 for a detailed breakdown}. As this pattern illustrates, the constituencies of most representatives who supported H.R. 4437 experience relatively little impact from undocumented immigration. As a result, these representatives are free to ignore the need for genuine immigration reform and focus instead on fostering a public image of being “tough” on undocumented immigrants. When the immigration debate shifts to the Senate in March, one can only hope that lawmakers there will adopt a more serious approach and rely less on political posturing than their colleagues in the House.





A Note on Methodology

The number of undocumented immigrants in each congressional district is derived from two sources: (1) estimates on the size and world regions of origin of the undocumented population in the United States as calculated by Pew Hispanic Center demographer Jeffrey Passel using data from the 2004 Current Population Survey [2]; and (2) demographic data from the 2000 census on the countries of origin, citizenship status, and year of arrival of immigrants in each congressional district.

The 2000 census data on each district’s population of non-citizen immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1990 and 2000 were used to estimate that district’s share of the U.S. undocumented population in 2004. In keeping with the categories used in Passel’s analysis, the 2000 census data on recently arrived non-citizens in each congressional district was grouped into five categories based on immigrants’ country or region of origin: Mexican, Other Latin American, Asian, European and Canadian combined, and African and other nationalities combined. This data, in turn, was used to directly apportion Passel’s data on undocumented immigrants from these same regions. Apportioning estimates on undocumented immigrants to geographic areas based on the demographic characteristics of immigrants in those areas has been used in other, respected analyses. [3]


Endnotes

1 Karen M. Mills, Congressional Apportionment: Census 2000 Brief. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, July 2001.

2 Jeffrey S. Passel, Unauthorized Migrants: Numbers and Characteristics. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center, June 14, 2005.

3 Rebecca L. Clark, The Costs of Providing Public Assistance and Education to Immigrants. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, August 1994; Rebecca L. Clark, et al., Fiscal Impacts of Undocumented Aliens: Selected Estimates for Seven States. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, September 1994; Deborah L. Garvey & Thomas J. Espenshade, “Fiscal Impacts of Immigrant and Native Households: a New Jersey Case Study.” In James P. Smith & Barry Edmonston, eds., The Immigration Debate: Studies on the Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1998.

Copyright: The material above was originally produced by the Immigration Policy Center of the American Immigration Law Foundation. Reproduced with Permission.


About The Author

Rob Paral is a Research Fellow with the Immigration Policy Center. Michael Norkewicz provided invaluable data processing for this report.


The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.


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