On this episode of Grapple, we’ll talk about immigration and our country’s changing demographics with journalist Maria Hinojosa. We’ll also hear from University of Pennsylvania political scientist Dan Hopkins about what contributes to the rise of anti-immigration politics and how it played out in the 2016 presidential election.
Dan Hopkins is a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. He researches what contributes to anti-immigration politics. We spoke with Hopkins in his office the day after Donald Trump won the presidency; and we talked about how immigration played out in the election.
What are Americans’ concerns about immigration?
“One possibility is that it’s more symbolic. That it’s a set of concerns about how immigration is reshaping what it means to be American. And scholars who adopt that view often will point to concerns around, for instance, language. That if you talk to Americans about immigration, one of the first things that comes up is often the use of Spanish or other non-English languages. And that it’s a source of real concern I think is indicative of many Americans thinking that immigration makes it harder for us to stay united as a people. And one thing to be clear about is that the evidence actually suggests that today’s immigrants are incorporating and adopting the English language, for instance, at rates that are roughly comparable to the adoption of English by Italian immigrants or other immigrants who didn’t initially speak English 100 years ago. But the public perception is very much that we have today growing immigrant populations not all of whom are interested in assimilating and adopting a set of American norms, chief among them being the English language.”
Anti-immigration politics and Hopkins’ Politicized Places Hypothesis
“My research has found, both looking at the attitudes of non-Hispanic white American citizens and also looking at where you see local anti-immigration political activity — say anti-immigration ordinances or the like — ... that they tend to appear under two conditions.
One we’ve been talking about is sudden demographic changes, destabilizing demographic changes that lead a lot of people to say: this doesn’t feel like my community in the way my community used to feel.
But there’s another element to the story. If you think back to the 1990s. The late 1990s were a period when immigration was increasing dramatically and a lot of communities in what we refer to as new immigrant destinations were cropping up — that is places where immigrants had not traditionally gone. But suddenly, you see large immigrant communities emerging in northwest Arkansas to work in chicken plants or in various parts of North Carolina, in suburban Washington, in Nassau and Suffolk County in New York. So those sudden changes both destabilized local norms. But the second piece of this politicized places argument which I’ve made is that you don’t need just demographic changes … you also need political rhetoric that can help people make sense of what these changes mean politically and how they relate to your political life … When people can turn on their televisions or look on their computer screens and be exposed to salient political rhetoric; which helps them then make sense of immigration and put a name and a set of labels to the challenges they’re seeing in their day to day lives. It helps them start to connect the Spanish they see at the grocery store to a broader political movement.”
What issues were you struck by in this election?
“I want to state unequivocally that attitudes about social groups and attitudes about race are central in how people understand immigration. And partly what Donald Trump and his ascendants within the Republican Party — and now within American politics — has done is to realign politics just on the margins. Most people who voted for Barack Obama voted for Hillary Clinton. Most people who voted for Mitt Romney voted for Donald Trump. But on the margins, Donald Trump has succeeded in reorienting politics such that people’s immigration attitudes and their prejudices are now more predictive of how they’re voting than they were four years ago.”
“One way in which you can make sense of this election is as having brought unusual prominence to symbolic issues. Issues that tell us which groups are up and which groups are down — issues about group status and group position. This election has in some very powerful ways upended some of the political conventional wisdom … that is very easy to hold from the offices of a professor in Washington D.C. or Philadelphia or New York City. In that slowly over time, election-by-election, we’re seeing a more diverse electorate. Younger generations are much more diverse and, surveys indicate, more comfortable in a diverse world. But that said … the changes that are wrought by demographics are very slow moving. And in any given election, you can see dramatic swings in either direction. So in this election, we’ve seen an unusual politicization of: white identity, immigrant identity, [and] a number of different group identities. And at the same time, the underlying demographic trends are pointing in a direction such that a Trump style candidacy would be increasingly improbable. But that didn’t make it in any way impossible in this election year. And so I would caution us against any simplistic explanation that says Trump represents the rise of racism or the resurgence of racism to the exclusion of other factors. I think undeniably there is a racial meaning to Trump’s election that is understood by non-Hispanic whites, by African-Americans, by Latinos, that we did not see in the prior election. And so voters who embrace a more cosmopolitan America moved toward Hillary Clinton. Voters who do not, moved toward Donald Trump. I would caution us against reading this election as any one story. I think any election is going to be a kind of collage of a wide variety of stories. But also undeniably questions of race, and group status and the meaning of white identity in a changing world have to be central when we talk about what happened in this election.”
Journalist Maria Hinojosa is the founder of the Futuro Media Group that produces NPR’s Latino USA, a PBS series called America By The Numbers and In The Thick podcast. She’s the host of all three programs and spoke with us from the studios of the Futuro Media Group in New York City.
What sticks out to you the most about how America has changed over your lifetime?
“When I was growing up as a Mexican kid on the south side of Chicago — in the middle of the Civil Rights era — my family, we consumed a tremendous amount of media. We were like all Americans. We were watching Meet the Press. We were watching the evening news. My dad was reading TIME magazine. But we were invisible. Our stories were invisible. People like me were invisible from any of the stories that were being told. And certainly, there was no one who looked like me or sounded like me who was delivering the news. So I grew up, essentially, feeling pretty invisible. Never ever in my life thinking that I could be smart enough to be a journalist. Fast-forward to this many years later and we’re not invisible now. And I’m running my own media company … And the data show what has happened in terms of the demographic changes in our country. So that’s a lot of movement forward. But sadly, and this is what gets really weird — especially if you are a Latino or Latina or an immigrant — we’re kind of in a place now where we’re being targeted as problems, as a community that takes and doesn’t give, that can be insulted. So there’s been a tremendous amount of progress. I’m a product of that. I’m a manifestation of it. I’m a manifestation of saying: I’m going to own who I am as an American, as an American woman, as an American journalist, as an American entrepreneur. But at the same time, I don’t know if I’ve ever felt as an American journalist … as a mom, Mexican immigrant living in Harlem — I don’t know if I’ve ever felt this much kind of attack also.”
What do you attribute the change to?
“If I put on my journalist hat, I’d say one of the biggest problems is that we haven’t really had a truly diverse mainstream media in the United States … There are statistics that have come out that said that there’s a possibility that there is less diversity now in American newsrooms than there was 20 years ago. So I think the lack of diversity of the media, the way the media — and we’re talking in broad strokes — created a narrative around these outsiders coming in. You do not want to have a situation where the fastest growing demographic groups, Asian and Latino, somehow feel like they’re not a part of the country. That’s not good — not just for them. It’s not going to be good for our democracy when they’re the majority … It’s not going to be good for our democracy for all of us.”
How is revitalization taking place in communities with the help of immigrants?
“It looks like a community where there was an economic downturn — where there was, let’s say, white flight, where certain industrial jobs have disappeared, but where other different kinds of industries appear. Let’s say a chicken processing plant or something like that, that draws these workers. By the way, they don’t end up there on their own. There’s a major effort to recruit undocumented workers because they are affordable. So what happens is that these people displace themselves. They buy into ‘come take this job’ in some godforsaken city that they’ve never heard of … and then they end up staying.
So all of it, to me, really comes down to: Can we accept the fact that we’ve always been in a country of immigrants except for our Native American peoples and the slaves who were brought here against their will? It’s unfortunate that we as a country haven’t been able to grapple sufficiently enough with accepting who we are and really, seriously, enjoying the benefits of all of us being here without fear.”
How are local leaders embracing immigrants within communities?
“There are places across the county where local officials have understood that this is something that you want to jump in and grow. I think that what you’re seeing is both a younger generation and an older generation of political savvy people who are again walking away from an emotional arguments and really looking at numbers and data. Just to give you an example: this is not the story of a city. This is a story about a college in Northern Illinois where the new president of that college had been in Kentucky and moves to Northern Illinois. He sits me down and says: ‘I just want to tell you what my financial plan is for this entire college that has been around for 150 years … it’s all based on Latino and Latina enrollment … that’s the fastest growing demographic turning 18. We need to get them. If we get them now, then we get their kids.’ And that’s the basis of his major economic plan to keep this college afloat. If you have that kind of vision, think what you can do … So can we do that without feeling afraid or not?”
Music: Tony Trov and Mike Vivas
Audio Engineers: Diana Martinez and Charlie Kaier
Executive Producer: Stephanie Marudas
Host, Editor: Naomi Starobin