(OPINION) The ‘Third Rail of American Politics’ (Immigration) Is Still Electrifying

Although public polling on immigration shows a strong shift to the left, survey responses in that vein mask a far more complicated reality. Over and over again, immigration has proved to be politically problematic for Democrats. As far back as 2007, when he was chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Rahm Emanuel warned that immigration had become the new “third rail of American politics.”

Mary C. Waters, a sociologist at Harvard whose work focuses “on the integration of immigrants and their children, the transition to adulthood for the children of immigrants, intergroup relations, and the measurement and meaning of racial and ethnic identity,” concisely described the immigration paradox in an email:

There is a large intensity difference. In 2020 support for immigration was the highest it’s ever been since 1965 when Gallup first asked the questions. But the people who are opposed to immigration are really opposed.

While those “who favor immigration favor a lot of other issues,” Waters continued,

those who are deeply opposed see immigration as an existential threat. As a national issue immigration motivates anti-immigrant voters in a single-minded way, but pro-immigration voters have a long list of things they support. In that way it works for the right.

Thomas B. Edsell, The New York Times, November 3, 2021
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