Americans are aware that their political class may not always act in their best interest. This belief is enshrined in the American character, its laws, and the very philosophy underpinning the U.S. Constitution. The Founding Fathers crafted things so that the "knaves" will be forced to abide by the will of the people, but they warned that their "natural progress" is to find ways to remain in power and increase that power at the people’s expense. They therefore also urged eternal vigilance, spiritedness, and the occasional revolt of the people.
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and others got it right—the knaves have, by and large, behaved, and their actions largely reflect in some way the will of the American people. Americans do not need to engage their politicians in an uncivil way—as happens most elsewhere—since the ballot box, the media, and other constitutional tools largely suffice. Indeed, the American political system works remarkably well. However, there are a handful of topics where the elites do not act in the interests of those they govern. Of these, the most notorious is the contentious issue of immigration. Why are politicians so keen on mass immigration while the common American is not? This has perplexed analysts.
When I aided the foreign relations of presidential candidate and president-elect Vicente Fox back in 1999 and 2000, I met with almost 80 U.S. congressmen and senators during numerous trips and at several events. With just over 50 of them, my colleagues and I spoke about immigration in some depth, as it is one of the important bilateral topics. My findings were reported in a Backgrounder published by the Center for Immigration Studies called "Politics by Other Means."1 It is a dense and academic paper, but the basic finding was: Indeed, American politicians are overwhelmingly pro-immigration, for a variety of reasons, and they do not always admit this to their constituents. Of those 50 legislators, 45 were unambiguously pro-immigration, even asking us at times to "send more." This was true of both Democrats and Republicans.
These empirical findings seemed to confirm what some analysts without that level of access termed as a political "perfect storm" of widespread political-elite support for immigration despite its general unpopularity with the average American. The paradox is that immigration is the only issue (perhaps besides trade policy) that represents a notorious discrepancy between elite and popular opinion in the United States.2 But this contradicts the established conventional wisdom of a representative democracy such as the United States. If mass immigration from Latin America has debatable benefits for the United States as a whole, if a majority of the American people is against it, and if immigrants cannot vote until they become naturalized (which can take years after their arrival), why would nine-tenths of the legislators we spoke with be so keen on increasing immigration?
Before these encounters, I believed that it was a problem of either diffusion of responsibility, "creeping non-decision," or collective rationalization with those legislators, but that was dispelled the more of them we met. Most of them seemed to be aware of the negative or at least doubtful consequences of mass immigration from Latin America, while still advocating mass immigration.3
The familiar reasons usually discussed by the critics were there: Democrats wanted increased immigration because Latin American immigrants tend to vote Democrat once naturalized (we did not meet a single Democrat that was openly against mass immigration); and Republicans like immigration because their sponsors (businesses and churches) do. But there were other, more nuanced reasons that we came upon, usually not discussed by the critics, and probably more difficult to detect without the type of access that we, as a Mexican delegation, had....