Immigration has become one of the most decisive and explosive political issues in many European countries. In the latest elections for the European Parliament, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Front National (FN) won their elections in the UK and France respectively. Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom (PVV) came in a close third (1.7 percentage points from first place) in the Netherlands. The anti-immigration rhetoric used by these parties and their leaders is frightening—at one PVV rally, Wilders asked party followers if they wanted more or less Moroccans in their city, to which they responded “Fewer! Fewer!” Meanwhile in the UK Nigel Farage has stated how some parts Britain are “like a foreign land.”
These are all clearly (now) mainstream politicians in Europe, if their performance and media coverage is anything to go by. UKIP has won the European election and Nigel Farage has no shortage of media attention in Britain and abroad. However, this explicit anti-immigration message is not found in mainstream American politics, especially not in recent years. Why not though? It is clear that the issue of immigration looms large in the United States. Estimates for the number of undocumented migrants in the country are in the range of 12 million, most of which come from Latin America. In the past year, over 50,000 children migrants have came across the border alone, and the US government continues to be unable to pass a law or find a solution. Meanwhile, over 16% of the population is of Hispanic heritage, rising quickly and surpassing the black population in the past decade. Spanish is now spoken by around one in ten, with the figure being even higher in many cities and southwestern states.
Why do neither of the two major American parties—the centre-left Democratic Party and centre-right Republican Party—use a similar anti-immigration rhetoric used by Farage and UKIP? The answer could be found in the unique political system of the United States—specifically regarding the presidential election system.
The electoral process for electing the president of the United States is very complex. In fact the election is not actually direct–it is the Electoral College that decides who becomes president. Each state gets a certain number of representatives in the Electoral College, corresponding to the number of representatives they send to Congress (i.e. based on population for the House and 2 for the Senate). For example, Pennsylvania sent 20 in the last election, Texas sent 28, and Delaware 3.
The focus of the election is therefore the 50 different states. Because of demographics and cultural differences across the country, many states are already assumed to be either in the Democratic or Republican column before the campaigning even begins. The Deep South—now below North Carolina and excluding Florida—votes Republican, along with the central plains. Meanwhile, the Northeast, upper Midwest, and West coast vote Democrat. This is so sure that presidential candidates do not even bother to campaign there, except for fundraising. There are then “swing” states that could vote either way, and these are the states on which the candidates focus their money and attention. Some of these states in the 2012 election included Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Ohio, and Florida.
In many of these states—which are essential to have a hope of winning the presidential election—the proportion of immigrants or descendents of immigrants who can vote is often higher than the national average. Looking at the proportion that are Hispanic—often first, second, or third generation immigrants–the figure is 8.4% in North Carolina, the same in Virginia, and over 20% in Colorado and Florida. Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, white British make up 87% of the population of the country.
In the American political system, the Hispanic vote is simply too large to ignore, and using such harsh anti-immigration rhetoric would ensure a presidential election loss. The Republican Party, who in the past was more conservative on the immigration issue, has changed its stance on the issue. While the anti-immigratnt rhetoric can work with its more conservative base, it will generally not work with the general election electorate. The party has recently realized that it can no longer rely on its traditional base of non-Hispanic white voters, who now make up less than 70% of the population, a number that continues to steadily drop. It has also realized that it can no longer ignore the minority vote in American presidential elections, unless it doesn’t want control of the white house in the future.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party, in its recent history, has benefited from getting a higher proportion of minority votes. This has gradually helped the party in the previous two presidential elections, helping Obama turn Virginia and North Carolina “blue” (for the Democrats) for the first time in decades. The changing demographics have also put other formerly solid red (or Republican) states into the swing state column. There has been talk of turning Arizona in the southwest and even Texas, the biggest Republican state into swing states. Meanwhile, the Republican Party has had trouble challenging the Democrats in any of their traditional strongholds or former swing states—except for perhaps Michigan which still went to the Democrats in 2008 and again in 2012 despite state-level Republican victories.
Seeing this changing reality in the country, in particular after the 2012 presidential election, the Republicans have tried to change their image and stance, in particular regarding immigration. While the country is still unable to pass immigration reform or find a solution to the recent influx of children across the border, mainly thanks to a much more partisan House of Representatives caused by the gerrymandering process, many Republicans, especially from the Senate, have actively called for reform which could include some sort of pathway to citizenship for the millions already in the country. The party has also been keen to promote its prominent Hispanic members—such as Senator Ted Cruz or New Mexico governor Susana Marintez—in order to show it is a more modern and inclusive party than its reputation says.
In the end, neither party has a choice but to support reform and try and garner the Hispanic vote in America. Over 60% of the general American public supports immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship. The Republican Party would thus go against the majority of the general population if it were to go against this reform. The number of voters who were immigrants or children of immigrants will only increase, especially in swing states that are required for presidential electoral victory. While Farage and UKIP do not require the minority vote to win, especially outside of London, the American parties cannot cater to only white voters. The minority vote in US elections is simply too important to ignore. A long history of heavy immigration into the country from Latin America has resulted in a large segment of the population, and now electorate, which has become a powerful political force in the country.