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New voters aren’t what Biden gains from his action on noncitizen spouses

3 weeks ago 17

For a certain portion of political observers, the imminent announcement from the Biden administration was proof that they had been right all along. President Biden was going to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, turning people who had entered the country without authorization into eventual voters. For right-wing adherents to the idea that there was an elite conspiracy to replace native-born Americans with immigrants, it was a sign that the “great replacement” had transitioned into a new phase.

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) was part of the chorus of critics.

“This is proof-positive of the Democrats’ plan to turn illegal aliens into voters,” he wrote in a social media post. Johnson in part was centering the announcement on his recent Donald Trump-driven focus on noncitizen voting — something that he himself admits has not been shown to exist to any significant degree. But the statement is also a nod to his party’s embrace of the idea that Democrats are luring immigrants to the United States solely to get more votes.

The reality of Biden’s executive action, formally announced Tuesday, is far simpler. Yes, he almost certainly hopes it will improve his chances in November. But not because he’s adding new voters to the pool.

This is obviously true because the executive action doesn’t grant citizenship. Instead, as a fact sheet from the administration explains, it removes the requirement that undocumented immigrants married to U.S. citizens leave the country before seeking legal residency. That’s the focus of how the administration is talking about the action: It would keep families together.

About half a million undocumented U.S. residents are expected to be eligible for the program, which also necessitates having resided in the country for at least 10 years. (Nearly two-thirds of the country’s undocumented population had lived in the United States that long, according to 2019 data from the Migration Policy Institute.) Once granted residency, immigrants could apply for citizenship five years later.

In other words: no new 2024 voters. But Biden’s reelection campaign certainly hopes 500,000 spouses of undocumented immigrants see new reason for enthusiasm about the president.

It's also useful to remember that immigrants in general and undocumented immigrants in particular tend to live in major urban areas, places that tend to already vote Democratic and/or be located in Democratic states.

Curious how those 500,000 undocumented immigrants might be distributed, I looked at two sets of data: Pew Research Center’s estimated distribution of undocumented immigrants by state and the Current Population Survey’s estimate of where married noncitizens lived. Each population was distributed in roughly the same way. The nine states that had the most married noncitizens were the same nine with the highest estimated population of undocumented immigrants. Cumulatively, they were home to two-thirds of the country’s undocumented population in 2019. (Since the executive order requires 10 years of residency, more recent arrivals are ineligible — itself a strike against “great replacement” theorizing.)

If we apply that distribution to the 500,000 total, we get a distribution that looks like the chart below. States are placed horizontally relative to their 2020 presidential vote margin and vertically relative to the estimated portion of the affected population.

About two-thirds of those affected are estimated to live in states that voted for Biden in 2020. Only 14 percent live in states that backed Donald Trump that aren't Texas or Florida. Any increase in new citizens along these lines would be first eligible to vote in a federal election in 2030.

We’re left with a sort of political Occam’s razor: What’s the simplest reason Biden is instituting this change (one that, as Johnson suggested in his post, might not withstand legal scrutiny)? Is it that Biden is scrambling to turn these people into voters in time for his reelection? Or is it that he hopes immigrant families — particularly Hispanic ones, given the composition of the immigrant population — view him more favorably?

The answer seems obvious. Or — as a conspiracy theorist might say — a little too obvious.

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