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GOP Primaries are Proving Voters Do Want Legalization (Even Some Republicans)

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The need for a “both/and” approach on immigration that combines a pathway to legalization and border security is getting a boost from two unlikely places: the recent Republican presidential primary races between indicted former President Donald Trump and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. 

Nikki Haley garnered 40% of the vote in South Carolina, higher than expected. CNN’s exit polling showed that 70% of Haley’s voters said they believed that undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. should be offered a chance at legal status. Nearly 30% of Trump’s voters agreed. Similar numbers were seen in the New Hampshire race last month, where Haley got over 43% of the vote. NH exit polling showed that 68% of Haley voters and 28% of Trump voters believed undocumented immigrants should be offered a chance at legal status. Haley’s number is consistent with what we saw in South Carolina. (Given Trump’s non-stop vile anti-immigrant rhetoric, it was surprising to see that over ¼ of his supporters don’t agree with him on his signature issue.)

Considering the onslaught of ugly messaging from Republicans, the numbers from these two early races show that nativism isn’t the silver bullet that GOP officials and candidates (and, frankly, too many in the political media) keep insisting it is. Results from Haley’s voters, in particular, also square with poll after poll, showing most Americans prefer a balanced approach over a solely border and enforcement approach. While Americans are concerned about the border, they want action over the status quo.

Let’s look at a couple of examples: Earlier this year, polling from Global Strategy Group found that 68% of all voters wanted “a balanced approach that includes both border security and protects Dreamers, providing them and other eligible immigrants with a pathway to citizenship.” By contrast, only 32% of all voters wanted “an enforcement-only approach that exclusively focuses on border security and limiting the use of asylum.”

Polling from the 2022 midterms also saw similar support for a balanced approach that takes into account the millions of immigrant families that have lived, worked, and contributed to our nation without an opportunity to become fully American on paper. When asked if our immigration policy should focus on border security first and deportations or a system ensuring a path to citizenship and a “safe and orderly border,” voters preferred the latter by a 57-43% margin.

Pro-immigrant visions can have a pathway in Congress. In 2019 and 2021, House Democrats passed two landmark immigration bills with support from Republicans. The Dream and Promise Act, which would’ve provided a pathway to citizenship for millions of Dreamers and temporary status holders, passed the House with support from seven Republicans in 2019 and from nine Republicans in 2021. 

Meanwhile, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, would’ve created a pathway to legalization for the farmworkers who feed America. That bill passed the House by an even wider margin of support, receiving support from 34 Republicans in 2019 and 30 Republicans in 2021.

Just over a decade ago, the Senate passed the “Gang of Eight’s” comprehensive immigration reform bill by a strong bipartisan majority. The bill would’ve been the biggest immigration overhaul in decades, creating a path to citizenship for millions and “the largest and most expensive investments in border security to date.” 14 Senate Republicans joined all Democrats to pass S. 744, which would have also significantly boosted the contributions that undocumented immigrants already make to America.

For comparison, the House GOP’s draconian H.R.2 –  also known as the Child Deportation Act – passed without any bipartisan support (and saw two GOP defections) last year.

Fortunately for political candidates trying to navigate these issues, we’ve already seen how a “both/and” approach can result in an electoral victory. In the NY-03 special election to replace disgraced former Congressman George Santos, Rep.-elect Tom Suozzi focused on both border security and the need for legalization and legal immigration. Suozzi also called out his GOP opponent, Mazi Pilip, and Congressional Republicans for their lack of credibility on the issue. Republicans notably rejected the provisions they demanded because Trump told them to. Voters in NY-03 were listening. 

“Several [voters] said to me that they don’t want to vote for the Republican because it’s clearly impossible to get a solution on the issue of immigration … and that the fact that Republicans killed that bipartisan deal put them over the edge to vote for Tom Suozzi,” CNN’s Dana Bash said. Suozzi would win the district by eight points, surpassing Santos’ 7.5-point victory in 2022. Suozzi’s election and the tanking of the Senate bill by Republicans was described as a “tectonic political shift” on immigration by pollster Fernand Amandi on a recent America’s Voice press briefing.

“One thing is clear: Democrats can’t ignore the immigration issue,” America’s Voice Senior Research Director Zachary Mueller wrote in his post-election analysis. Even after the loss in NY-03, Republicans have made it clear they’re sticking to their nativist agenda heading into the November elections. Trump is running on a chilling vision of militarized mass deportations and the purging of long-settled immigrants from U.S. communities. “Make no mistake – a Trump second term would be devastating to all Americans because the Trump team’s obsession with purging the country of immigrants will ravage our economy, devastate law enforcement, and transform the very fabric of our nation in the process,” said America’s Voice Executive Director Vanessa Cárdenas. 

Democrats, Mueller continued in his analysis, “should not fall into the GOP traps and reinforce their pernicious disinformation about immigrants and the border. Voters also want solutions while supporting legalization. That was evident in the exit polling from the New Hampshire GOP primary.” And, since then, in South Carolina exit polling as well.