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Ties to Undocumented and Deported Make Immigration a Priority Issue and Drive Presidential Approval

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Cross-posted from Latino Decisions:

As the Obama administration looks to revamp the Secure Communities program that has allowed local law enforcement to help the federal government identify undocumented immigrants for deportation, we focus our attention on the Latino Decisions blog to the relationship deportation has on Latino political behavior through multiple blog posts this week. The first blog featured earlier this week focused on the relationship between personal connection to immigration policy and partisanship among Latinos finding that there is a meaningful relationship. Our work here focuses on the impact Latino connections to deportation and undocumented immigrants more broadly has on immigration salience and approval of President Obama.


The Obama administration has simultaneously marketed the prospect of comprehensive immigration reform to Latino voters, while overseeing mass deportations of mostly Latino immigrants. As deportations have risen steadily, there has been little research on how deportations and personal connections to undocumented immigrants have influenced the political attitudes of the Latino/a electorate. Using a unique nationally representative survey of 800 registered Latino/a voters administered in 2013, we explore the relationships between personal connections to undocumented immigrants and issue salience among Latinos as well as views of President Obama.

Deportations of non-citizens from the interior of the U.S., termed “removals” by federal immigration authorities, have reached historical highs. As reflected in the figure below, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reports over 4.2 million removals between 1997-2012[1], over twice the total number of all deportations before 1997, and nine of the top 10 removal countries are in Latin America. Although this increase is often justified by its focus on criminal aliens, DHS statistics reveal that as many as 70% of removals during this period have been non-criminal aliens, and among those labeled ‘criminal aliens” the most common crime is a traffic offense.


The record number of deportations of the Bush and Obama administrations have been driven by the conflation of border enforcement and undocumented immigration with the terrorism threat to the U.S. among the anti-immigrant public and elites.  Such fears were given life in the DHS Secure Border Initiative championed by Secretary Chertoff beginning in 2005, “We will continue to protect our nation from dangerous people by strengthening our border security efforts and continuing our efforts to gain effective control of our borders” (Chertoff 2005; 2008).  In the absence of congressional immigration reform legislation, Chertoff’s Secure Border Initiative ended the policy of ‘catch and release’, increased detention bed capacity, and maximized the return on agreements with local law enforcement.

Latinos Have a Personal Connection to Deportation

Over 1.0 million family members remaining in the U.S. have been separated from loved ones through deportation, and at the community level many immigrants now live in fear of deportation and family separation . To assess the impact of this policy outcome on Latino voting behavior we draw on the research exploring knowing someone who has been incarcerated or had some kind of contact with the police. This research finds that indirect contact leads to lower levels of voter turnout and degrades trust in government, generally, as well as trust in local police (Burch 2013; Vidales and Powe 2009; Lee, Porter and Comfort 2014; Hurwitz and Peffley 2005). It is reasonable to expect these findings to be reflected among Latinos who know someone who is undocumented, or especially, who has been deported.

In this research, we explore whether personal connection to immigrants, in the form of knowing someone personally who is undocumented and/or who has been deported, is correlated with immigration policy salience and attitudes toward President Obama among Latinos. We anticipate finding that Latinos who know someone personally who is undocumented, as well as knowing someone who has been deported will lead to a higher likelihood of identifying immigration as salient. We anticipate that the substantive impact of knowing someone who has been deported will be great than knowing someone who is undocumented.

Data and Results

We find that not only is the number of Latino registered voters who know someone who is undocumented high (63%) in our sample from a Latino Decisions/Latino Consortium survey, when we compare this to the same item asked in a 2011 Latino Decisions survey we see that there has been an increase of 10 percentage points over that two year time period.[2] It is important to note that the 63% revealed here comes from a sample of registered voters, meaning all respondents are US citizens who are eligible to vote. There is a similarly interesting pattern when we explore the connections of Latino registered voters to deportations. Although there are fewer Latino registered voters who report that they know someone who is facing deportation or detention due to immigration, nearly 40% of the sample report that they do.  Furthermore, familiarity with deported individuals among Latinos has increased substantially from 25% in 2011 to 39% in 2013.

In our multivariate analysis where we control for income, education, gender, age, language, nativity and partisanship, we find that knowing someone who has been deported and knowing someone who is undocumented are both significantly and positively related to viewing immigration policy as the top issue that Congress and the President should act on.  In line with our hypothesis, these variables are significant and positive, indicating that having this personal connection to immigration and deportation policy is more likely to believe that immigration policy is the most important issue for the federal government to address. We find that respondents who know someone that has been detained or deported due to their immigration status are 8.5 percent more likely to believe Congress and the President should act on immigration policy versus all other policies, holding all else constant.  This reveals that the personal connection that Latino voters have to immigration policies and their outcomes may explain how immigration policy emerged as one of the most dominant themes of the 2012 election.

The next step in our analysis is to explore the impact of Latino’s personnel connection to immigration policy on favorability toward President Obama. Here we find that knowing someone who is undocumented yields lower favorability scores for Obama among Latino registered voters, even when controlling for the same host of factors as in the previous model. In fact, Latinos who know someone that is undocumented are 43.4 percent less likely to have a favorable impression of the President (compared to Latinos who do not know an undocumented immigrant), holding all other factors constant. Although knowing someone who has been deported is not statistically significant in this model, the huge substantive impact of knowing someone who is undocumented provides context for the implications

This study provides insights into how immigration policy during a period of heightened salience of the issue has marked electoral politics by focusing on a key electorate who is directly tied to immigration politics and policy outcomes, Latinos.  While more work needs to be done in this area, this finding should motivate scholars to explore how in-direct connections to deportation policy influences other outcomes. Given the significant influence knowing someone who has been directly impacted by deportation policy has on Latino political behavior, the potential for a shift in policy approach related to Secure Communities could have a marked impact on Latino voting patterns in the near future.