How to Explain the Seeming Gap between Public Opinion and Immigration Reforms in Congress?

Aug 6 '13

Continuing our new series of collaborations with political science journals, we are pleased to present the following guest post from University of British Columbia political scientist Gyung-Ho Jeong to discuss his article “Congressional Politics of U.S. Immigration Reforms: Legislative Outcomes Under Multidimensional Negotiations” that appears in the current issue of Political Research Quarterly.  In conjunction with this post, Sage Publications will make the article freely available to all for the next 30 days; you can download it here.


According to Gallup polls, less than a quarter of the American public supports expansive immigration policies, while more than three quarters of people prefer the status quo or more restrictive policies. However, as illustrated by the past legislation (and recent debates) over the legalization of undocumented immigrants and increased level of legal immigration, immigration reforms tend to produce legislative outcomes that are not consistent with public opinion. Why?

While the conventional view explains this gap by citing the dominant role of organized pro-immigration interest groups—such as business interests and ethnic groups—in immigration policymaking, in a current article in Political Research Quarterly I present an alternative view that focuses on the nature of immigration debates in Congress.

Examining the politics of immigration reform in 1986, Artistide Zolberg observed that the conflict over immigration created “strange bedfellows” that cut across the ideological alignment of left and right. The reason is that immigration affects two different sets of concerns: economic and social/cultural. Economically, immigration affects the supply of labor, creating conflicts of interest between employers and employees. Socially, immigration affects national identity, culture, and ethnicity, pitting social liberals against social conservatives. In this article, I take this multidimensionality of immigration politics as a starting point to explain the gap between public opinion and legislative outcomes. In short, I demonstrate that the multidimensionality of immigration debates has allowed minorities of legislators to increase their influence by alternately forming coalitions with different groups. This has contributed to the seeming gap between public opinion and legislative outcomes even when legislators were not captured by pro-immigration groups.

For instance, during the 1986 debates, legislators who represented social conservatives and labor unions were united against the introduction of the guest-worker program, which was proposed by legislators representing business interests. Figure 3 shows how this coalition blocked and modified the guest-worker program, and brought the legislative outcome to the political center of the Senate floor (the shaded area in the figure). When Senators Pete Wilson (R-CA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) proposed amendments (“1” and “8” in the figure) to introduce the guest-worker program, these amendments represented a policy outcome that would increase the number of immigrants in the horizontal dimension (“admission”) while decreasing the rights of immigrants in the vertical dimension (“rights”). Against these efforts, Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) made a coalition to block these amendments. Legislators representing social conservatives were opposed to the guest-worker program because it would increase the number of immigrants. On the other hand, legislators representing ethnic groups opposed the program because it would create a sub-class of workers without the same level of protection as native workers. Nonetheless, this same coalition disbanded on the issue of legalization. On the one hand, legislators supporting labor unions made a new coalition with those who represented ethnic groups in order to increase the scope of legalization. On the other hand, Republicans, representing social conservatives and business interests, were united against expanding the scope of legalization. Then again, these coalitions were broken when the Senate debated over employer sanctions. Ethnic groups broke the coalition with labor unions and formed a new one with business interests in order to oppose employer sanctions that they feared would induce discrimination in hiring. My analysis of the three major immigration bills in 1986, 1996, and 2006 shows that these alternating coalitions blocked major changes to immigration policies and produced centrist legislative outcomes.

Jeong graph

After demonstrating that multidimensional negotiations produced a centrist compromise on immigration reform, I examine the validity of the conventional view that legislators were captured by pro-immigration interest groups. Using the measures of public opinion at the state level, I found that Senators’ voting on immigration was not captured by pro-immigration groups, although their campaign contributions were significantly related to Senators’ voting on some issues. Instead, public opinion was found to be significantly related to Senators’ voting on immigration in many occasions. Therefore, my overall conclusion is that the seeming gap between public opinion and legislative outcomes cannot be completely explained by the dominance of pro-immigration interest groups. Rather, immigration legislation should be understood as a result of multidimensional negotiations in Congress—with both public opinion and interest groups having an influence on legislators.