In 1986, president Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Control and Reform Act, a major piece of legislation that offered legal amnesty to all undocumented immigrants who had arrived in the United States before 1982. Ultimately, some 2.7 million migrants living in the country unlawfully, most of them from Latin America, were granted green cards. Many went on to become naturalized citizens.
If the “great replacement theory” is correct, Reagan’s presidency should have ushered in a historic collapse in the electoral fortunes of the GOP.
Replacement theory is a conspiratorial narrative according to which native-born white Americans are being deliberately “replaced” by nonwhite immigrants and their children in order to boost the voting power of liberals and Democrats.
That view has deep support on the Trumpian right and is a favorite theme of Fox News personality Tucker Carlson, who has argued that “the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” In campaign ads last fall, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, the third-ranking House Republican, warned that Democrats “plan to grant amnesty to 11 MILLION illegal immigrants” in order to “overthrow our current electorate and create a permanent liberal majority in Washington.” J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee in the Ohio Senate race, told a campaign audience last month that surging immigration is causing “a shift in the democratic makeup of this country that would mean . . . Republicans would never win a national election in this country ever again.”
Similar claims have been expressed by other Republicans. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich explains rising immigration as part of a plan by “the anti-American left” to “drown traditional, classic Americans” with ignorant newcomers. Donald Trump himself often referred to migrants crossing the Southern border as “an invasion,” and regularly claimed that millions of ballots were cast illegally by foreigners not permitted to vote.
Yet if all this is true, then how did the GOP survive Reagan’s decision to legalize millions of unauthorized immigrants?
In the wake of the 1986 law, which dramatically expanded the number of Hispanic immigrants eligible to vote, Republican political successes didn’t dry up — they multiplied. After serving two full terms as president, Reagan was succeeded by another Republican, something that hadn’t happened since Ulysses S. Grant. In 1994, Republicans were elected to a majority in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1952. They have retained a majority in at least one house of Congress through 11 of the last 14 election cycles.
The supposed “replacement” effect didn’t keep George W. Bush from winning the White House twice. It didn’t keep Trump from succeeding Barack Obama as president. And it clearly wasn’t responsible for Trump’s loss to Joe Biden in 2020. After all, close to 40 percent of Hispanic voters backed Trump in that election — a notable rightward shift from 2016.
“Yes, Virginia, Immigration Is Turning the Country Blue,” wrote conservative polemicist Ann Coulter in November 2017. She contended that “the millions of Third Worlders we’ve been dumping on the country” were “brought in to vote for the Democrats” — and, as evidence, pointed to Virginia, where Democrat Ralph Northam had just won the governor’s mansion. Just four years later, however, Virginians elected Republican Glenn Youngkin as their new governor. Another Republican, a Black conservative immigrant from Jamaica, Winsome Sears, was elected lieutenant governor.
Virginia is looking like a bellwether. If opinion polls are to be believed, Republicans are on track for dramatic gains in the midterm elections this fall. And they seem likely to pick up even more Hispanic voters than in 2020.
Racial and ethnic scenarios about a “great replacement” are nothing new in American history.
As far back as the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin worried that German immigrants would “soon so outnumber” the native-born English population that “even our government will become precarious.” In the early 20th century, leading American scientists and historians warned that the flood of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe would spell the end of “white political dominion.” Not so long ago, Democratic strategists gloated that the influx of immigrants onto the voter rolls would “shift the nation in a more liberal direction” and celebrated “The Emerging Democratic Majority” that was sure to lead to.
It’s all nonsense. There is no “great replacement” in the offing. Voting patterns are not coded in DNA or determined by ethnic identity. No party owns the votes of immigrants. The Gipper understood that in his bones. What a scandal that so many of today’s Republican leaders are blind to such a fundamental American truth.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit bitly.com/Arguable.