For Whom Would the Undocumented Vote?

A big thank-you to Dave Hoffman and the Concurring Opinions bloggers for inviting me for a guest stint. I’m looking forward to being a regular contributor for the next month, and to the feedback from blog readers! Unlike Paul, I have decided to blog today in one of my areas of substantive interest — immigration — but promise to be more adventurous next time! Now on to the substance:

illegal%20immigrant%20sign,jpg.jpgDuring the longest primary season on record, we’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn of the voting preferences of American women (favored Obama in Iowa but Clinton in New Hampshire), African-Americans (turned out in record numbers for Obama in South Carolina), Latinos (favored Clinton in Florida and Nevada), independent voters (inclined towards Obama and McCain), and even the under-30 vote (generally favor Obama). But the pollsters have not explored the presidential preferences of a harder-to-locate group, estimated at 12 million individuals, who live and work among us — undocumented immigrants. Of course, the undocumented can’t vote, so it’s no surprise that the campaigns and polling organizations have not expended their resources to investigate the preferences of this group. But I posit that if we take Rawls’ Theory of Justice seriously, particularly the notion that society should be structured so as to balance social and economic inequalities such that they provide the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society, we might want to think about the opinions that the undocumented might express in this political process. Moreover, the rallies and marches in response to immigration reform proposals last spring suggest that the undocumented population has some political voice of its own, and that at least some documented immigrants may represent this voice.

The complication, of course, comes in determining the preferences of a population that is largely underground. Unfortunately, my personal polling operation did not make it in to the office this morning (so unreliable!), so I’m forced to rely on analogies. According to a recent count by the Pew Hispanic Center, the undocumented are nearly 80% Latino and nearly 60% male; presumably they also skew low on the income scale and young. If we look at polls, the result might favor Clinton — Latinos and white working class voters tend to support her, although younger voters favor Obama. (Male voters, another group whose preferences haven’t much been highlighted in this election, are fairly evenly divided between Clinton and Obama.)

But if we look at a policy-based poll of documented and undocumented Latinos, we find that this group would like to see a comprehensive immigration reform bill, largely opposes workplace raids, and, by a small majority, favors providing driver’s licenses to the undocumented. As reported on the ImmigrationProfs blog, Obama has consistently supported licensing all drivers, while Clinton has, well, “flip flopped” on this issue. While some commentators argue that McCain is the strongest candidate on immigration reform, Obama has promised to take up the issue in his first term. It seems that Obama would win on the policy front — which takes us back to Rawls, and how we should don the “veil of ignorance” in practice. When the apparent policy preferences of a disadvantaged group conflict with how they might exercise their political preferences (admittedly speculative in this example), does this mean “we” should decide what is in their interest according to our interpretation of those policy preferences? Or should we measure social utility purely based on preferences expressed? This may be one of the more important questions of our time, and I can’t say I’ve reached a satisfying answer that doesn’t leave me feeling either patronizing or scared.

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4 Responses

  1. Carrie Meadow says:

    Hi Jaya:

    Great blog and tough issue (my husband is a Democratic pollster trying to figure this out) and welcome to concurring opinions. I look forward to reading you!!


    Carrie MM

  2. RH says:

    Ironically, the ‘undocumented worker”/”illegal alien” would like laws passed to suit their best interests while at the same time breaking the law by entering this country without following the proper procedures. Ironically for me; I support the notion that America needs to be able to control who comes across its’ borders while at the same time acknowledging that I too would cross illegally if it meant a better life for my family.

  3. Matt Lister says:

    I’m glad to see this post and think it’s an interesting topic. I would caution, however, the application of Rawls’s ideas to this particular case, at least in this way, since it’s not at all clear to me that they are applicable. This is mostly so because this is obviously a case of non-ideal theory and it’s not at all clear that Rawlsian machinery can be straight-forwardly applied in non-ideal theory. At the very least it has to be done with great caution and care. Secondly (though in a complicated mix with the first point) it’s not obvious as who counts as in the relevant society for consideration for applying Rawlsian machinery. It certainly can’t be _assumed_ that aliens (perhaps especially illegal aliens, though I’m unsure on that) count as part of the relevant community for applying the original position method. You can’t, clearly, make a full argument for this in a short blog post but it’s clearly a big problem (one most people don’t face up to.) I think that Rawls’s theory has a lot of very interesting and important implications for thinking about immigration (as you can see if you look at my SSRN page) but that it has to be done very carefully if it’s going to be useful at all.

  4. Jaya Ramji-Nogales says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Matt, which are well taken. I agree that my application of Rawls’s theory to this particular set of problems in a very short blog post takes some liberties, and look forward to reading your piece on how to apply his thoughts to immigration. And absolutely, the starting point of what constitutes the relevant community is crucial — I would argue that immigrants, both documented and undocumented, should (and would elaborate further if I had more space) but recognize that there are valid arguments on the other side.