Whatever happened to immigration?

Republican House leader John Boehner says we are living through a political “rebellion” on the Right. Yet the issue that most excited conservatives just 18 months ago has almost disappeared.

Immigration went unmentioned in the governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey. Doug Hoffman’s Palin-backed candidacy tiptoed around the subject—even at one point appearing to endorse guest-worker programs.

California is immigration ground zero. In the special election Tuesday in California’s 10th Congressional District, the Democrat, John Garamendi, endorsed a McCain-Kennedy style amnesty. The Republican, Doug Harmer, laid low.

The state with the fastest growing immigrant population over the past decade is North Carolina. That state had two noteworthy elections Tuesday: the municipal elections in Charlotte and Greensboro. Immigration figured in neither—not even in Greensboro, where a Republican challenger defeated an incumbent Democratic mayor on a law-and-order platform.

Where’d the issue go?

Some might say: In a recession, voters care only about bread-and-butter issues. But immigration is a bread-and-butter issue! It drives local property taxes (issue No. 1 in New Jersey) and heaps extra burdens on immigrant-magnet school districts (like those in northern Virginia).

Immigration is certainly much more a bread-and-butter issue than, say, same-sex marriage. Yet in Maine, voters thronged the precincts in every city as at least 53 percent of the electorate turned out to cast ballots in a referendum on legalizing gay marriage.

Here’s a hypothesis: Immigration is receding as an issue in the late 2000s for the same reason that crime receded as an issue in the late 1990s—because illegal immigration itself is subsiding.

The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that some 1.2 million Mexicans left the United States between 2006 and 2009. The Census Bureau reports that the foreign-born population declined slightly between 2007 and 2008, for the first time since 1970.

The heavily Latino Los Angeles County school system has seen a 7 percent decline in enrollment since 2003. Virginia’s Prince William County debuted a program of local enforcement of immigration laws in 2007. Although Prince William is one of the fastest-growing counties in northern Virginia, enrollment in PW schools dropped 5 percent from 2007 to 2008.

Recession and lost jobs obviously account for much of this shrinkage —but not all of it. Talk of amnesty in 2001–05 encouraged residency-seekers to flow across the border; repeated rejections of amnesty put an end to that incentive. Meantime, federal enforcement of immigration laws tightened after 2006, with more fines imposed on more lawbreaking employers.

None of this solved the problem—only mitigated it. Yet mitigation can change the political temperature. Mitigation reassures voters that leaders are responding to popular concerns. Mitigation diminishes demands for divisive symbolic actions (gun control, the border fence). Mitigation inspires patience by promising continuing improvements in the future.

As public policies succeed, politics gets deradicalized.

True of crime yesterday, true of immigration today—could it be true of same-sex marriage and abortion tomorrow? The number of abortions declined from a peak of more than 1.4 million in 1990 to roughly 820,000 in 2005. If the downward trend continues, will the debate over abortion cool? What if the same-sex marriage debate could have been postponed until U.S. society had adjusted to civil partnerships? Maybe hot-button issues get hot not because they are immune to compromise, but because people cannot imagine what a compromise might look like. When they do finally see the middle ground, it’s often because they themselves are already standing on it.