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Where the Public Really Stands on Immigration Reform and the AZ Law

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June 2012

Latino Voters Want Respect, All Voters Want Solutions

With the Supreme Court having ruled on Arizona’s anti-immigration law, SB 1070, we turn to another court for its ruling—the court of public opinion. 

Polls show support for both state-based laws and comprehensive, federal reform—not to mention pro-immigrant policies like President Obama’s recent commitment to protecting for DREAMers from deportation.  So where do voters really stand?  When it comes to immigration, do politicians have to choose between courting Latinos and other voters, or is there common ground after all?      

Read on to find out.


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.

Latino voters strongly oppose SB 1070.  Shortly after SB 1070 became law, most Latino voters had already heard about it and were strongly opposed, according to an AP-Univision poll.  Fifty-six percent of Latinos said they had heard a lot about the law, while only 33% of non-Latinos reported the same.  Only 5% of Latinos had heard nothing about SB 1070, compared with 22% of non-Latinos.  Two-thirds (67%) of Latino voters said that they opposed the Arizona law, with an impressive 60% strongly opposed.  Nineteen percent were unsure at that time.

Arizona Latinos were at the forefront of the debate, and in May 2010 81% of them opposed the law according to an NCLR-Latino Decisions poll.  As awareness grew within the Latino community in other states, so did opposition to SB 1070.  By November 2010, 74% of Latinos across the country were opposed, including 65% strongly opposed, according to Latino Decisions.  Only 9% remained unsure.

As the Supreme Court was considering the case, a Latino Decisions/America’s Voice poll asked Latino voters in five key states–Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia–how they would feel if the Court upheld the law. Across all five states, 60% of Latino voters agreed that upholding the law would create an anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic atmosphere around the country. Less than a third of voters–28%–believed the law would have no impact. In Arizona and Nevada, 65% of Latino voters worried about an anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic backlash if the law were upheld.

Immigration is a mobilizing issue to Latinos.  In November 2010, after months of news coverage over SB 1070, Republican opposition to the DREAM Act, and anti-immigrant campaigning in the mid-term elections, 60% of Latino voters told Latino Decisions that immigration was “the most important” or “one of the important” issues in their voting decisions.  In Arizona, a whopping 69% of Latinos said it was one of the most important issues impacting their voting choices, and 40% said it was the most influential factor.  The “Latino firewall” in the west is widely credited for keeping the Senate in Democratic hands during the Republican wave of 2010.

In 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.  In 2012, Latino voters are putting Arizona back on the map for the Democratic Party.  Years of anti-immigrant rhetoric and posturing are hurting Republicans in this state with a growing Latino voter population.

Now, polls show that Mitt Romney’s embrace of SB 1070-style policies will hurt him with Latinos.  In an April 2012 Public Policy Polling poll of Latino likely voters in key states, 58% of respondents in New Mexico said Romney’s support for SB 1070 made them less likely to vote for him; 55% of respondents in Nevada said the same; and 50% of respondents in Florida said the same.


While most people aren’t surprised to hear that a majority of Latino voters support comprehensive immigration reform, the views of other groups are often completely misunderstood.  When asked about state-level immigration reforms like SB 1070, a majority of Americans are supportive.  But research shows that this simply speaks to their desire for action over the status quo.  Larger majorities are in favor of balanced federal reforms like the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform.  

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).

This continues to be true as the Supreme Court’s decision nears. A New York Times/CBS poll conducted in June 2012 showed that roughly half of all voters supported SB 1070.  Still, 64% favored some form of legalization (either permanent citizenship or guest-worker status) for the undocumented.

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 fact, 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.  Clearly, voters want action, but support for a real solution at the federal level is strong.

Ultimately, Americans think immigration policy should be made by the federal government, not by the states.  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.” 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 falters.  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.  In Alabama, a December 2011 poll conducted by the Alabama Education Association showed that only a few months after this state passed its version of SB 1070, 55% of voters wanted the law to be revised or repealed.  The same was true in a March 2012 Anzalone Lizst Research survey.

Americans believe the immigration system is broken and know that action is needed to fix it.  And some voters are so frustrated with the stalemate in Washington that they’re willing to consider other options.  But support for comprehensive immigration reform is actually stronger than support for state-based crackdown laws.  As it turns out, politicians can appeal to both Latino voters and other Americans simply by embracing and acting on real immigration solutions.