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Where the Public Really Stands on Immigration and Arizona’s SB 1070

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With the Supreme Court set to hear arguments for and against Arizona’s anti-immigration law on Wednesday, April 25th, we turn to another court for its ruling—the court of public opinion.  In advance of tomorrow’s proceedings, America’s Voice Education Fund analyzed how immigration and SB 1070-type laws are play out  among the American people. The results might be surprising for many observers.

Politicians are often confused about where the public stands on the issue of immigration reform.  While polls show support for state-based immigration laws, there is even stronger support for federal, comprehensive reform.  How is this possible, and why?  And do politicians have to choose between courting Latino voters and the general public when they stake out an immigration position, or is there clear common ground?

new polling roundup released today by America’s Voice Education Fund analyzed public opinion ahead of this week’s Supreme Court argument on the Arizona anti-immigration law, SB 1070.  We found two key points: 1) To Latinos, the fastest growing voting demographic, Arizona’s law is both divisive and motivating; and 2)  Overall, voters want action, but prefer comprehensive immigration reform.

First, for Latinos, Arizona’s law is both discriminatory and motivating. When Arizona’s SB 1070 became law in 2010, it received major attention in the national news—both in English and in Spanish.  For the Latino community, it became a symbol of the anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment that has infected politics in recent years:

In May of 2010, 81% of Arizona Latinos opposed the law according to an NCLR-Latino Decisions poll, and in November2010, 74% of Latinos across the country were opposed, including 65% strongly opposed, according to Latino Decisions.

In November 2010, after months of news coverage over SB 1070, Republican opposition to the DREAM Act, and anti-immigrant campaigning by many candidates, 60% of Latino voters told Latino Decisions that immigration was “the most important” or “one of the important” issues in their voting decisions for the mid-term elections.

In November of 2011, Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce, the lead sponsor of SB 1070, lost his seat in a historic recall election thanks in large part to mobilization by Latino voters.

And, SB 1070 will be a motivating factor for Latinos in 2012. Dr. Gary Segura, a professor of political science at Stanford and principal at Latino Decisions, told my colleague Maribel Hastings, that regardless of the outcome of the case, SB 1070 will have political implications in both the short-term and long-term. He said, “If SB 1070 is upheld, Latinos will be inflamed, Republicans will embrace it and Latino turnout and enthusiasm for the election will go up. If SB 1070 is struck down, largely because the president authorized the Justice Department to sue, the president gets the benefit of all of that and you can expect Republicans to denounce the Court and to say predictably awful things about Latinos. So it’s kind of good for Obama either way.”

So, then, what about other voters?

Again, voters want action, but prefer comprehensive immigration reform. When asked about state-level immigration reforms like SB 1070, a majority of Americans are initially supportive.  But research shows that this simply speaks to their firm belief that they immigration system is broken and that someone needs to take action to fix it.  Larger majorities are in favor of balanced, federal laws like the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform that represent a real solution to immigration challenges instead of get-tough crackdowns.

In a series of national polls taken in the months after SB 1070 was passed, a slim majority of Americans supported the law—but a larger majority supported comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legal status for the undocumented.  This includes polls taken by the New York Times/CBS in May 2010 (64% supported comprehensive immigration reform; 51% said SB 1070 was “about right”); AP/Univision in May 2010 (59% supported comprehensive immigration reform; 42% supported SB 1070); and NBC/MSNBC in May 2010 (65% supported comprehensive immigration reform; 61% supported SB 1070).

Even in Arizona, a July 2010 Arizona Republic poll found that 62% of voters supported comprehensive immigration reform, while only 55% supported SB 1070.  In addition, a poll conducted by Lake Research Partners for America’s Voice/America’s Voice Education Fund in summer 2010 found that an overwhelming 84% of voters who support Arizona’s law also support comprehensive immigration reform.

Ultimately, Americans think immigration policy should be made by the federal government, not by the states. That’s the legal issue the Supreme Court will be deciding.  As the Lake poll found, a majority of people who support SB 1070 do so because “the federal government has failed to solve the problem.” By the same token, however, 56% percent said that immigration should be dealt with at the federal level while only 22% said it should be dealt with by the states.

When voters learn the economic, societal, and legal costs associated with anti-immigration state laws, support declines.  Even a July 2010 Rasmussen poll of Arizona voters found that 46% believed passing SB 1070 had had a negative impact on the state’s image; 40% said it had a positive impact.

The numbers are actually crystal clear: Americans want a Federal fix to our broken immigration system, not a state-by-state patchwork of immigrant harassment laws like SB 1070.  As the U.S. Supreme court takes up Arizona’s “show me your papers” law tomorrow, our nation’s leaders should take note: this is more than just a Latino issue, it’s an American issue.