With Immigration Low On List Of Tea Party Priorities, Is Nativism Really On the Rise?

amnestyLast week, Ezra Klein pointed out that tea parties haven’t focused very much on immigration and that “nativism has been, to me, the dog that didn’t bark.” Gabriel Arana responded to Klein’s piece, maintaining his original assertion that “growing nativism among members of Congress reflects a society-wide trend” that could derail immigration reform efforts. A recently released set of national surveys by the Winston Group confirms Klein’s first observation. Winston Group found that those who associate with the tea party movement are primarily motivated by economic and fiscal concerns and that cracking down on immigration ranks low on their priority list, as it does for most Americans. Noah Kristula-Green of the Frum Forum reports on the findings:

If Obama decides to tackle immigration reform next, some have wondered what the tea party response would be. Interestingly, it may not be an issue for most rank and file tea party members. When asked whether immigration was an issue that motivated how they voted, tea parties responded that it was just as low on their priority list as the average population. They also gave “cracking down on immigration” as a “best” way to create jobs nearly same weight as the average voter—which is to say, not as much weight as tax cuts or developing energy resources.

Implication: Some have argued that if the Democrats move to immigration reform, that the tea party movement will reveal itself to be driven by anti-immigrant sentiment. The data does not suggest that this should be expected.

It’s understandable why Arana would reach a different conclusion. There is undeniably a nativist strain present within the tea party movement, as evidenced by the 18% who favor cracking down on immigration as a way to create jobs. Anti-immigrant groups like NumbersUSA have been working hard to mimic the tea party movement and to foster any nativist tendencies to promote their own agenda. Americans for Legal Immigration PAC went as far as to stage a series of poorly attended copy cat tea party protests against immigration and is in the process of planning more.

Yet, according to the report, tea party followers aren’t latching on. Polling shows that they prioritize job creation, deficit, spending, and tax issues specifically because “they are seen as a means to reducing unemployment and improving the economy.” Roy Beck, director of one of the largest anti-immigrant groups, has been encouraging his members to frame their message in fiscal and economic terms. However, the fact that most tea party supporters still don’t see immigration as a hot issue suggests that Beck has, so far, been largely unconvincing. Furthermore, FreedomWorks chairman and tea party strategist Dick Armey has outright opposed letting nativists under the tea party “umbrella” and has suggested that doing so would be poisonous to the movement.

However, contrary to what Klein suggests, nativism doesn’t just bark — it also bites. While nativists represent a minority, they represent a loud minority that manages to make enough noise to motivate hateful acts of violence and scare politicians into crafting bad policy. As Klein points out, the health care debate ended quietly for the nativists, but that’s mostly because immigrants were thrown under the bus when things started to heat up. Meanwhile, hate crime statistics against immigrants and anyone who looks like an immigrant demonstrate a troubling upward trend. Research has suggested that unrestrained immigrant-bashing on behalf of nativists is largely responsible for the rise.

Ultimately, Klein aptly observes that the immigration issue has failed to incite the tea party movement as a whole. He also correctly points out that the American public has not undergone a broader shift towards a negative opinion of immigrants. (In fact, the majority of Americans, across party lines, support comprehensive immigration reform which includes a path to legalization). The Winston Group’s findings further suggest that though nativism is certainly a reality, most Americans — including many tea party supporters — are above it.