Opinion

Illegal Immigration Doesn’t Give Democrats Extra House Seats

AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File

David Bier Immigration Policy Analyst, Niskanen Center

Opponents of immigration constantly claim that unauthorized immigrants hurt Republicans electorally. The latest effort is from Ian Smith of Immigration Reform Law Institute, who inaccurately claims in a piece for National Review that illegal immigration gives more congressional seats to heavily Democratic states.

It’s true that immigrants increase the number of people counted toward apportionment in Congress under the Constitution. The problem with Smith’s claim, however, is that he defines “Democratic state” based on the presidential vote in 2012. But presidential elections don’t determine redistricting for Congress; state legislators do. The best way to determine if new seats in Congress will turn red or blue is to control the state legislature.

Viewed this way, Smith’s claim immediately crumbles. He takes for granted that states which voted against Mitt Romney — the anti-immigration-reform candidate — would be most attractive to unauthorized immigrants and, assuming his conclusion, also be Democratic. Both claims are untrue.

We can put Smith’s claim to the test with careful state-by-state estimates of the illegal population from demographer Robert Warren, former head of statistics for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Adding up the illegal population of  states with unified Democratic legislatures and dividing by 700,000 — a rough estimate of the size of a congressional distract in 2011 — yields the Democrats seven additional seats in the House of Representatives, one less than Smith asserts in his article, using the same method.

Performing the same procedure for split legislatures results in two new seats for those states. For states with unified Republican legislatures, the illegal population gives them seven additional seats, the same number as the Democratic  states!

In other words, illegal immigration not only made little difference in the most recent apportionment in Congress — it made no difference at all. Smith’s claim is simply false.

Smith is even more off base than this. If we restrict our view to illegal immigration since 1990, we find that Republican states have actually come out ahead. Republican states gained almost a full House seat in Congress from illegal immigration between 1990 and 2010.

What about more recently? Illegal immigration from 2000 to 2010 netted the Republicans about six seats in redistricting. Democrats managed only about 4.5, giving the Republican states yet again more than a seat advantage.

All this shows a few things. First of all, the traditional narrative that liberal states attract illegal immigration is wrong. Illegal immigration shifted decisively away from liberal states in the 1990s. Immigrants, like all other people,  are attracted to states with pro-growth policies because those are the ones that create jobs.

Second, it proves that illegal immigration makes little difference to apportionment in Congress. Even if the Republicans got a boost due to it since 1990, it was insignificant. Very few bills hang by a single vote in Congress.

Finally, it demonstrates that Republicans can win in states with immigrants. Smith regurgitates the old myth that immigrants in the 1990s turned California Democratic, while explicitly saying he “excluded the Republican stronghold of Texas” from examination, a state that happens to have the second largest illegal population. Convenient for him, but poor analysis.

California did turn Democratic in the 1990s, but only after Republican Governor Pete Wilson ran a scorched-earth campaign in which he blamed his state’s fiscal problems on illegal immigrants. After Wilson made the  California GOP synonymous with anti-immigration, he doomed the party in his state.

Texas went the other way. George W. Bush and Rick Perry campaigned as pro-immigrant governors. Perry signed the Dream Act, which ended discriminatory college tuition for young immigrants. In his 2012 presidential campaign he told his  Republican competitors who rejected the Act to “have a heart.”

Ultimately, Smith’s proposal is a self-fulfilling prophecy. He advocates anti-immigrant policies to hurt the Democrats electorally, but the more Republicans sing his tune, the worse they do with immigrant voters. The root of the problem  is the policies, not the immigrants. Fix the policies, and make the party competitive again.

David Bier is an immigration policy analyst at the Niskanen Center, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C.