I was gratified to hear gubernatorial candidate Fred Smith recently declare that illegal immigration is “the number one issue in this governor’s race.” Gratified … because illegal immigration is an extremely important issue that affects every other policy area — education, healthcare, even transportation and the environment. That being said, I don’t think Smith or anyone else can run a campaign on immigration alone. Especially with the economy stalling, jobs and economic issues are going to become more important to voters. As this happens, support for controlling illegal immigration may slip.
Here at Civitas we have been polling on immigration since our inception. We have questions on in-state tuition for illegals (70 percent oppose (April 2007)); benefits for illegals (72 percent want to eliminate (January 2007)); and the 287(g) program (87 percent support) that permits local police officers to work with federal officials to deport criminal illegal aliens.
Over the past two years, we have seen illegal immigration become one of the top issues of concern to voters. In September 2005, when we asked what issues need the most attention from state government, respondents said: lower healthcare costs, improve public education, and create jobs, with control immigration in the 5th spot out of 7 categories. A year later, immigration was tied for first with improve public education. Two years later, immigration was holding steady, tied for second with healthcare. This past February, though, this trend changed. In our latest DecisionMaker Poll, immigration slipped to 4th place, just behind create jobs.
So, will we see support for controlling immigration begin to slip as the economy slows? Some folks — both Republicans and Democrats alike who don’t really mind illegal immigration — would like to think so. I don’t share this opinion, though.
The reality is that illegal immigration is bad for our economy. It costs native workers and recent legal immigrants jobs. It depresses wages for low-skilled legal workers and minorities. It also reduces long-term productivity. Indeed, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies, during the last recession (2000-2004) 100 percent of all net new jobs went to immigrants. During the same period, native workers lost jobs.
Voters (and candidates) concerned about the economy need also to be concerned about immigration. Again, this is not to say that most candidates can win on immigration alone (McCain, at least, has managed not to lose the nomination in spite of his support for an amnesty). But if voters can be made to understand that illegal immigration means fewer jobs and economic opportunities for legal workers, then immigration can certainly be brought to bear upon what is shaping up to be the top campaign issue (along with healthcare) for 2008.