In a recent congressional debate in Idaho, the first 11Â questions for a pair of congressional candidates were about immigration. At another in Arkansas, the fate of undocumented immigrant kids dominated the discussion even though few of them resideÂ in theÂ state. And in Minnesota, a Democrat challenging an incumbent GOP House lawmaker went back and forth on the merits of building a wall on the U.S. southern border more than 1,600Â miles away.
With the midterm elections next,Â the topic of immigration is churning in House congressional races in places where the unemployment rate is low, the economy is robust and undocumented immigrants are few. Historically, these same indicators, when pointing in the opposite direction, trigger an anti-immigrant backlash. Not so in 2018.
President Donald Trump has been the driving force behind that hyperfocus on immigration, with his tweets and comments about the migrant caravan marching north and his plan to deploy more troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, and his attempts to follow through on his 2016 pledge to build a border wall. But thereâ€™s also a level of â€œcultural anxietyâ€ at play, say politicalÂ experts, as some AmericansÂ living far from the border continue to perceiveÂ a threat from immigrants, both legal and undocumented.
Americans list health care, the economy and gun policy as the three most important issues theyâ€™ll consider when casting their vote, with immigration coming in fourth, according to a nationwide poll conducted by the non-partisan Kaiser Family Foundation.Â But self-identified Republicans cited immigration as their top concern.
Daron Shaw, a professor who studies campaigns and public opinion at the University of Texas atÂ Austin, says those numbers can be explained by two factors.
The first is a connection ingrained in the minds of many Americans that immigrants are harmful to the economy and drive down the wages of native-born workers, a connection that is refuted by multiple studies. So even if a native-born American is gainfully employed, Shaw says, they can still blame immigrants for their rising property taxes or a neighbor whoâ€™s underemployed.
“Even during good economic timesâ€¦they look at those situations and the influx of illegal immigration and they put those together,” he said.
The second reason immigration is so prevalent, Shaw said, is that border control becomes a measure by which voters judge a government’s ability to operate. And even though Republicans control the White House and both chambers of Congress, Shaw said the perception of an out-of-control border becomes a key point of contrast between candidates, with many Republicans pushing for a border wall while accusing Democrats of sabotaging their efforts to preserve so-called “open borders.”
That analysis helps explain whyÂ Republican Rep. Mike Simpson and his Democratic challenger Aaron Swisher ended up fielding 11 consecutive questions about immigration to start their debate in Idaho’s second congressional district.
In a district where unemployment is hovering around 2 percent, Swisher spoke about the damage that visas for high-skilled foreigners have on Americaâ€™s computer scientists. And in a district where just 14 percent of the population is Hispanic, Simpson stressed the importance of border security by citing the latestÂ Central American migrant caravan that has so preoccupied Trump.
“There is today, I heard, 1,000 people from Honduras making their way up here that are going to try to cross illegally,” Simpson said during the Oct. 14 debate. “That’s going to cause a problem.”
The caravan en route to the U.S.-Mexico border has since swelled in size to between 3,500 to 7,000, but like previous caravans, the majority are not expected to present themselves at ports of entry and request asylum. Nearly 1,700 members of the current caravan have already applied for asylum in Mexico, according to Mexican government authorities.
A similar debate played out last week in Minnesotaâ€™s second congressional district, whenÂ Republican Rep. Jason Lewis and his Democratic challenger Angie Craig didnâ€™t discuss the border their state shares with Canada, but did get into a prolonged debate over the logistical challenges of the nation’s southern border.
Lewis recounted a trip he took to Southern California, explaining what he learned about a valley there known as “Smuggler’s Gulch” and the 14 miles of double-layered border fencing erected around San Diego. “Of course we need a wall,” he said.
Craig countered by saying that drones flying overhead and sonar technology scanning for tunnels underground were more effective options. “If you build a 30-foot wall, someone’s going to build a 32-foot ladder,” she said.
U.S. Border Patrol apprehension numbers along the southern border rose in 2018, but remain at historic lowsÂ due to stronger enforcement efforts, a stronger Mexican economy and last decadeâ€™s lengthy U.S. recession. In fiscal year 2000, federal agents caught nearly 1.7 million migrants compared to less than 400,000 in fiscal year 2018, which ended Sept. 30.Â
In Arkansas, which is home to less than one percent of undocumented immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Republican Rep. French Hill and hisÂ Democratic challenger, state Rep. Clarke Tucker, spent a long portion of a recent debate in the state’s second congressional district debating DACA and its future.
DACA was created by then-President Barack Obama in 2012.Â The goal was to protect from deportation undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents. ButÂ many Republicans called it executive overreach because Obama did not seek congressional approval, and last year President Donald Trump tried to end the program, a decision that is being challenged in federal court.Â
In Pennsylvaniaâ€™s recently redrawn 17th congressional district, where just 1.4Â percent of the population is Hispanic, Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb and Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus debated border security, the ability of undocumented immigrants to find jobs, DACA,Â family separations, the diversity visa program, and whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be abolished.
The topic of immigration comes in a midtermÂ election with dozens of competitive House races in play. Democrats need to pick upÂ 23 House seats win control of the House from Republicans.Â
Frank Mora, a former Obama administration official who now heads the Kimberly Green Latin America and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, said the widespread debate over immigration in this yearâ€™s campaign seasonÂ illustrates how Trump has managed to tap into xenophobic fears felt by so many Americans.
“They’re not stealing the jobs of people in Idaho, right? And undocumented immigrants commit less crime than citizens or legal residents,” Mora said. “So it’s not about taking jobs, and it’s not about crime. Then what is it about? Cultural anxiety.”
More: Fact check: Trump’s stump speeches on immigration
In â€œactive resistance” to the policies of the Trump administration, dozens of protesters gathered in front of Trump International Tower and Hotel in New York City. (Sept. 25)