Washington has again failed to pass an immigration overhaul measure, but on Friday thousands of new American citizens will be sworn in at hundreds of locations across the country. The July 4 naturalization ceremonies have become a staple of the holiday’s celebration.
Statistically speaking, the foreign-born population in the U.S. is at an all-time high, according to the U.S. Census. There are 40 million foreign-born people living in the country today – 12.9% of the population – up from 31.1 million and 11.1% back in 2000.
The spread of those people around the country is far from uniform, as shown when we look at them with the 15 county types in the American Communities Project. And the way foreign-born people are dispersed around the country offers insights into how different American communities experience immigrants and immigration — and insights into why it’s hard to get movement on something considered a crucial issue by both major political parties. (Mouse over counties on the map below to see foreign-born population percentages by county.)
Looking at the map above there are three county types that stand far above the rest – the Big Cities 23.1% (in pink), the Hispanic Centers 20.5% (in green) and the Urban Suburbs 17.6% (in dark orange). Those three types are all well-above the national average for foreign-born people, but the political impact of immigration in places is not equal.
In the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs, densely populated, diverse places which tend to vote Democratic, those foreign-born populations, which also tend to lean Democratic, reinforce a left-leaning trend in the electorate. They push the vote in those places further in the Democratic column politically. These are places that tend to support immigration reform that allows for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
But the impact in the Hispanic Centers looks different. As you can see on the map, those counties sit almost entirely west of the Mississippi River and mostly in rural places that tend to vote Republican. In fact, even with large Hispanic populations (they are more than 56% Hispanic) those counties voted for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race by about 3 percentage points.
Why? Some of this may have to do with the percentage of the foreign-born that are citizens – and therefore eligible to vote. The naturalization figures are much lower in the Hispanic Centers, where only about 33% are naturalized compared to more than 45% in both the Big Cities and Urban Suburbs.
Foreign-born residents in the Hispanic Centers may be seen as political threat to the more conservative U.S.-born populations in those counties — and making those foreign-born populations into citizens would make them more of a threat. In other words, in terms of political power, many of those places probably aren’t too eager to see an increase in naturalization ceremonies – on the Fourth of July or any time soon.
But after those three community types, what may be most interesting is the drop-off in the foreign-born population. In eight of the county types in the ACP, representing more than 85 million people, less than 6% of the population is foreign-born.
Geographically speaking those eight county types – the Military Posts, Middle Suburbs, African American South, Evangelical Hubs, Native American Lands, Working Class Country, Rural Middle America and Aging Farmlands – make up a broad swath of the country, more than 2,000 counties.
In those places, the immigration debate seems pretty removed from everyday life. It’s an issue that isn’t directly tied to a lot of what happens in those places, an issue with which most people likely don’t have immediate experience. For the members of Congress who represent those places – and they make up massive parts of many states – immigration likely doesn’t feel like a crucial issue.
When you add it all up, you begin to get an understanding of why immigration reform is stalled on Capitol Hill. While polls may show approval overall, the geographic spread that leads to a combination of disapproval in some places and disinterest in others.
The videos you will see this July 4 of people taking the oath to become U.S. citizens might make for good TV, but it will take more than that to move the ball on immigration policy.