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Solutions > Divisions: A Majority of Americans Want Legal Status for the 11 Million – and Reject the Politics of Xenophobia and Division

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Democrats have introduced a series of immigration bills to create a pathway to legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants in an attempt to fix our decades-old broken system. Votes in the House of Representatives are expected during the week of March 15, 2021, on the American Dream and Promise Act (HR 6) and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (HR 1603).

The House voted for the Dream and Promise Act in the last Congress, passing the legislation by a margin of 238-187, with support from seven House Republicans.

The measure has strong support from the American people. By a 60-24% margin, newly-released February 2021 Morning Consult/Politico polling finds voters support the citizenship provision of immigration legislation. Additionally, intensity is much stronger among pro-citizenship respondents, with 32% “strongly” supporting and only 14% “strongly” opposing. Democrats favored the measure 77-10%, Independents 54-26%, and Republicans were split, with 41% supporting and 43% opposing. 

In other words, in the real world, there’s a bipartisan, national consensus.

But on Capitol Hill, it’s a different story. Unfortunately, too many elected officials and political pundits slip into tired old anti-immigrant conventional wisdom of the past. Besides the polls, there’s actual electoral proof: the fear-mongering messages that much of the Republican party ran on the last four years was a  the losing proposition with voters.

Our report, G.O.P. Ad Wars in 2020: Divisive, Anti-immigrant, and Racist, tells this story in greater detail, but it is worth revisiting the ineffectiveness of attacks on members’ votes on immigration bills. In this report, we will focus on the anti-immigrant ads aimed at House Democrats, particularly those addressing the Dream And Promise Act. 

In short, GOP attacks didn’t work.

Xenophobic dog-whistling is ineffective 

In 2020, America’s Voice
tracked anti-immigrants ads run against House candidates and in this report, we will compare what happened in 2020 in the races for the 41 frontline House Democrats who flipped seats in 2018. In those races, anti-immigrant attacks were either largely ineffective or completely absent in 2020. 

As noted, in June 2019, the House passed the Dream and Promise Act (H.R.6) that extended permanent legal status to Dreamers and TPS recipients. As is so often the case with immigration issues, some worried this vote would result in attack ads in the 2020 cycle hitting members for their so-called “amnesty” vote. That really didn’t happen.

Two incumbents, Matt Cartwright (PA-08) and Conor Lamb (PA-17) faced attack ads hitting them for their H.R. 6 vote. Both won reelection. In PA-08, Republican Jim Bognet, an acolyte of anti-immigrant zealot Lou Barletta who ran against Rep. Matt Cartwright (D) in PA-08, ran two separate TV attack ads on Cartwright’s H.R.6 vote. In both ads, Bognet hit Cartwright on supporting “amnesty for illegals,‘’ citing his H.R.6 vote. However, the majority of voters were not swayed by these attacks and voted for Cartwright to remain in Congress. 

The other attack ad on H.R.6 targeted Lamb and came from the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF), the super PAC tied to House Republican leadership. The CLF ad said, “Lamb voted to protect illegal immigrant gang members.” Arguably the hardest hitting (though arguably false) attack the GOP could make on this vote, but here too voters were insufficiently convinced by the coded xenophobic division and voted for Lamb to remain in Congress.

In the race for the open seat in Georgia’s 7th Congressional District, Republicans tried to have it both ways. The GOP candidate, Rich McCormick, told audiences the GOP was a “party of immigrants.” At the same time, he ran a Facebook ad touting support for Trump’s border wall while also endorsing the extreme agenda of an anti-immigrant group. Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux called him out for this hypocrisy, noting “Georgia’s 7th Congressional District is one of the most diverse, rapidly-changing districts in the country, and 25% of its residents were born outside of the United States.” And, she won, flipping the seat Republicans had held for the prior two decades.

 There was another bill that Republicans used as a vehicle for anti-immigrant attacks. In May of 2020, Democrats in the House also passed the HEROES Act, a large COVID relief and economic stimulus package that would have included help to some mixed-status families (families that include both Social Security number-holding citizens or non-citizens and undocumented immigrants or those lacking a Social Seciurity number). 

Democrats Ron Kind (WI-03), Colin Allred (TX-32), Elissa Slotkin (MI-08), and Anthony Brindisi (NY-22), were all hit with ads attacking them for voting to give “stimulus checks to illegal immigrants” under the HEROES Act. Kind, Allred, and Slotkin went on to win their races with the xenophobic dog-whistling attacks failing to move the needle enough for the GOP to flip these seats.  

All to suggest that the xenophobic dog-whistling even in Republican-leaning battleground districts is not something Democrats should fear when casting votes in Congress, based on the evidence from 2020. In fact, despite the votes taken in the previous Congress, most House battleground districts in the 2020 cycle did not see any anti-immigrant attacks on their congressional votes or otherwise. 

Of note, Democrats in eight battleground districts (AZ-01, AZ02, KS-03, VA-10, MI-11, MN-02, NJ-07, and GA-06) that saw xenophobic attack ads in 2018, did not see similar attacks this cycle after the strategy failed in previous campaigns.

Doing nothing is not an option

polling conducted for FWD.us and America’s Voice by Global Strategy Group, Garin-Hart-Yang and BSP Research found voters overwhelmingly prefer providing a pathway to citizenship to undocumented immigrants over an approach of deporting them by a 79% to 21% margin. Even base Republicans prefer citizenship over deportation by a 61% to 39% margin. Specific proposals to provide citizenship all earn similarly massive support, including with Democrats, swing voters, Latinos, and African Americans. 72% nationally support the Dream Act with 91% report with base Democrats, 72% with swing voters, 85% with Latino voters, and 77% of African American voters. Citizenship for undocumented farmworkers similarly had 71% support nationally, 92% with Democratic voters, 73% with swing voters, 73% with Latinos, 79% with African Americans. 

The American people overwhelmingly supported legislation to create a pathway to citizenship for their neighbors when heading into the polls in the last election. The American Election Eve Poll found: 90% of Latinos, 90% of Black voters, 81% of Asians, 85% of American Indians, and 81% of white voters support establishing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who come forward, are up to date on their taxes, and pass a background check. And when given the choice between deportation and paths to legal status, voters overwhelmingly favored the latter, with 79% to 19%  support for a path to citizenship among Latinos, 82% to 17% among Blacks, 69% to 26% among Asians, 68% to 31% among American Indians, and 55% to 44% among whites. 

If the Trump Administration did anything lasting on immigration, it was to turn the majority of the public against their cruelty and chaos approach. The American Election Eve Poll found 87% of Latinos, 90% of Black voters, 81% of Asians, 79% of American Indians, and 78% of white voters want to end the policy of separating immigrant children from their parents at the border. While Pew research found:

In 2016 voters were about evenly divided in the share saying that the growing number of newcomers strengthens American society (46%) and the share who said they threaten traditional American customs and values (50%). Today, six-in-ten American voters (60%) say that newcomers strengthen American society and 37% say they threaten traditional customs and values.” Pew concludes, while “there continue to be stark differences” in how Americans view immigrants, “voters across the political spectrum have shifted in a more liberal direction.

Inaction is not an option. Based on the polling cited above conducted recently for FWD.us and America’s Voice, Democrats risk alienating their base and Latino voters if they again fail to deliver on the outstanding promise to deliver pathways to legalization to our undocumented neighbors. 63% of voters say they would be upset if immigration reform does not pass and undocumented immigrants remain vulnerable to deportation. Notably, 76% of Latinos say they would be upset, including 40% who say they would be very upset by this outcome. The Democratic base would also be upset over inaction with 86% upset and 42% saying they would be very upset. The polling further suggests that voters will blame both parties for inaction, despite the obstructionism from the GOP.  62% said they would blame Biden and the Democrats for inaction, while swing voters are especially likely to blame both sides if legislation failed to pass (54% would blame both sides, 18% would blame Biden and Democrats, 27% would blame Republicans). 

A key warning to the Senate, the poll found a majority of voters say they would be less likely to vote for a Senator who votes AGAINST citizenship bills. A majority of all voters (55%), and a strong majority of Latinos (63%) say they would be less likely to vote for a Senator who votes against citizenship bills, while just 28% of voters say they would be more likely to vote for a Senator who does that. Only 17% of voters say this issue would not make a difference in their vote.

Message To Democratic Lawmakers: Lean in, don’t give in

As elected leaders prepare to take critical votes to advance legislation to create a pathway to legal status and citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, they should remember: 1) this is an issue with broad public support; 2) campaign attacks in this area have been ineffective, and 3) a solution on citizenship here is an important step towards racial justice and democracy reform. Three out of four Americans want a solution that provides legal status to our 11 million undocumented neighbors, not their mass deportation. Even a solid majority of Trump voters support legal status over mass removal.  Citizenship is a winning issue elected leaders should not shrink from. Leaning in, not giving in, is key. Congress should act. It is the right thing to do for our country and it is also a strong political move. 

In spite of a clear track record of failure, Donald Trump,Stephen Miller, top GOP leaders and anti-immigrant hate groups are pushing the GOP to again adopt a strategy heavy on xenophobic dog-whistles. Confirming they will back this play at the present, top GOP leaders tested out their anti-immigrant messages at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Anti-immigrant zealotry may work with a segment of the Republican base, but it backfires with the majority of the public who want to fix the issue and move on to other pressing matters. This strategy should worry Republicans outside the deepest red districts and encourage Democrats to lean in and fight to see solutions enacted.