The recent Homeland Security funding fight resurfaced Republicans’ continued aversion to regularization for illegal immigrants. Presumably, among their calculations is the notion that allowing some of the estimated eleven million individuals that are living in the US illegally to gain voting rights would result in electoral gains for Democrats. Worse still, the impact would be hardest felt in key battleground states.

Assuming that the president’s opponents are right, and that regularization is a pathway to citizenship, does this necessarily lead to losses for the GOP at the polls? There’s enough historical precedent to, at the very least, muddy the waters of that now widely held belief.


In the most recent iteration of this persistent struggle, conservative House Republicans threatened to withhold DHS appropriations unless the president backed off his executive order shielding five million people from deportation. While their strategy fizzled, it is instructive nonetheless.

Clearly, antagonism to the legalization of non-residents living on U.S. soil remains strong among conservatives.

There are a few predominant reasons why that could be.

One, some feel that it is fundamentally unfair to bypass our legal immigration system and then effectively get away with breaking the law after the fact.

Second, if this precedent is set, it will only embolden higher numbers of foreign citizens to illegally immigrate in the future.

Third, many share the belief that an uptick in regularized migrant workers would drive down wages and take jobs from U.S. citizens. 

Fourth, entitlements for this newly legalized population could have a large impact on the deficit.

But, as always, the GOP is also doing what it considers to be basic political arithmetic here.

Hispanics represent 17 percent of the U.S. population. Yet, they only constitute about 3 percent of the electorate with many concentrated in non-competitive districts and states.

Republicans are happy with this status quo because it means that Hispanics are, broadly speaking, negligible in electoral terms.

But full amnesty would significantly alter the status quo. Only 69 percent of adult Hispanics are citizens compared to 96 percent of adult non-Hispanics. And according to a recent Gallup poll, they identify as Democrats rather than Republicans by a ratio of roughly three to one. Thus, the natural assumption is that naturalization favors Democrats disproportionately at the polls.

However, things are not necessarily that cut and dry. In the same Gallup poll, more than half of Hispanics surveyed identified as political independents. They tended to lean left, but not decisively. And this non-citizen survey contingent held less extreme ideological views. This means they might be more pliable to a rightward shift.

Thus, with an adroit policy platform, it is plausible that the GOP could attract a majority of this voting bloc.

Historically speaking, precedent says that is not impossible.

In 1986, Congress and President Ronald Reagan passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The bill was a sweeping immigration overhaul that gave legal status to nearly three million undocumented residents. As an offset, the legislation enhanced border enforcement and imposed harsher penalties on employers hiring undocumented workers.

And in a striking parallel to recent events, President George H.W. Bush passed a follow-up executive order in 1990 granting citizenship to co-habitant family members of those naturalized in 1986 – with the caveat that they were residing in the U.S. prior to the bill’s passage four years earlier.

Thus, we have a historical case study, prompted by two Republicans, which very closely mirrors President Obama’s recent actions so unpopular among conservatives.

Antagonists using non-electoral arguments can make the fair case that the 1986 package supports their position.

As stated in a recent Washington Post piece, it “was supposed to put a stop to illegal immigration once and for all.” In that respect the law clearly failed. Quite the opposite, illegal immigration rates have increased.

But academic studies as well as a quick glance at Electoral College data both fail to draw the political conclusions conservatives fear.

Research published in Social Science Quarterly examined voting trends among Latinos in California. It uncovered a steady proportional increase in turnout among Latinos. However, this owed more to how contentious the politics were for the demographic rather than a population shift. The 1986 IRCA cohort of new immigrants did little to move the needle. 

A second study focused on the evolving partisan attitudes of two different immigrant groups—Asians and Latinos—finding that there is no common, homogeneous set of issues that unite them. Political preferences across these groups are as different as the individuals themselves.

Finally, one can simply eyeball the electoral map since Regan’s 1986 amnesty.  The states most affected by this policy—Texas, New Mexico and California—did not experience leftward shifts especially where presidential politics are concerned.

Based on all of the above, politically calculating conservatives may want to consider a rethink of their fundamental belief that naturalization will be unequivocally bad.

One of their most lauded historical figures, Ronald Reagan, had no compulsion about signing an amnesty bill into law. And it didn’t cost him.

Therefore, it may be that President Obama’s executive order will not be all that harmful at the voting booth either.

Going a step further, the Republican majority could seize the initiative and pass their own bill this Congress, easing restrictions, and thus directly impacting a substantial number of independents just waiting to pick sides.

History has a way of repeating itself. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing for the GOP.

Leblang is the J Wilson Newman Professor of Governance at the Miller Center and professor and chair of the Department of Politics at UVA. Lucadamo is the lead policy analyst at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.