U.S. Immigration Politics: Reshaped by Internal Migration?

Migration is reshaping the U.S. political landscape—but perhaps not in the way most believe.

At a time when anti-immigrant restrictionists appear on the rise in the United States, a nearly invisible mass migration in the Americas could be reordering American politics in a direction favorable to immigration rights.

With the U.S. foreign-born population at a near-historic level—13.4 percent of the population in 2015 compared to the modern high of 14.8 percent in 1890—anti-immigration rhetoric has unquestionably been a cornerstone of Donald Trump’s surprise presidency.

In office, his rhetoric has morphed into anti-immigrant policies and proposals that threaten the tradition of the United States as a nation of immigrants and risk destabilizing countries across the Americas.

In September 2017, for example, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, policy that protected from deportation nearly 800,000 immigrants brought to the United States as children. If Congress fails to protect DACA beneficiaries, their mass deportation could destabilize the United States’ most important global partner—Mexico—as it struggles to reintegrate those deported during the Obama and Trump presidencies and to fend off Trump’s protectionism, all while wading through a dynamic election year.

In the past month, the Trump Administration also broke 20 years of bipartisan consensus and ended Temporary Protective Status, or TPS, for thousands of Nicaraguans and Haitians, straining the hemisphere’s two poorest countries, and appears poised to do the same to more than 200,000 Hondurans and Salvadorans TPS beneficiaries.

Newly released U.S. government statistics also demonstrate how the Trump Administration is fostering fear and uncertainty among immigrants across the United States. Since January 20, 2017, immigration-related arrests away from U.S. borders have risen 30 percent and removals linked to such arrests have increased 37 percent from the previous year.

Paradoxically, the antidote to this anti-immigrant fever may end up being a mass migration, albeit an internal one—the movement of hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland following Hurricane Maria.

Since that historic storm and since the Trump Administration’s mismanaged disaster response began approximately 200,000 Puerto Ricans have relocated to the U.S. mainland.  A number many expect to double in the next year.

As U.S. citizens, migrants from Puerto Rico have the power to reshape politics immediately.

This is particularly true in electorally significant state of Florida, which expects nearly 200,000 Puerto Ricans to relocate there in the immediate, post-storm period, radically altering the state’s political demographics as the number of Puerto Ricans rapidly draws even with the state’s Cuban-American population.

This is all taking place in a state where presidential and gubernatorial elections are notoriously closely contested—with a net partisan difference among the 50 million presidential votes cast since 1992 of 14,000, or 0.04 percent—and involves a group that leans heavily Democratic.  Puerto Ricans broke 3-to-1 for Democratic presidential candidates in Florida’s past three elections.

Although conservative groups are dedicating significant resources to cultivate Puerto Rican voters in Central Florida, the botched response to Maria and a Republican tax plan that threatens to further devastate Puerto Rico’s recovery may drive recently arrived voters further into the waiting arms of Democratic politicians.

With the majority of the U.S. foreign born population having been born elsewhere in the Americas, any shift away from Trump’s restrictionist approach on immigration toward greater inclusion and rationality would have significant ripple effects for the region and for regional relations.

President Trump was reportedly surprised that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizen; he and his fellow restrictionists may soon be surprised to the degree migrating Puerto Ricans will change the U.S. political map and thus the contours of the national immigration debate.

By Dan Restrepo, Fellow, Center for American Progress.

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