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25 Years After IRCA, Millions of Voters Still Personally Engaged By Immigration Debate

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One Year Out from 2012 Election, “Party of Reagan” Has Some Lessons to Learn on Immigration

November 2011 marks not only one year before the 2012 election, but also represents an anniversary – it’s been 25 years since President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which granted legal permanent residency to nearly 2.7 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.  Not only is this an occasion to reflect on how far the Republican Party has moved away from the immigration legacy of its supposed icon, President Reagan, but it also presents a reminder of why immigration is such a personal and defining issue for millions of voters throughout the nation.  

Many of the individuals who legalized through IRCA have become citizens and voters today.  Other voters have family members who benefited from the 1986 law, or have had other struggles with our country’s broken immigration system.  As a result, it is little wonder that the immigration issue and the immigration debate are such important voting issues for many Latinos and naturalized immigrant voters.    

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “The events of 25 years ago remain crucial in understanding the dynamics and motivations for the election one year from now.  Immigrants who became voters following passage of IRCA, young voters with immigrant parents, or countless others with a personal connection to the immigration system don’t just see this as a policy issue, but a family issue.  How our leaders handle the immigration issue affects their families, their futures, and their sense of full acceptance in American society.”  

On the 25th anniversary of IRCA, the following lessons are important to remember:

  • Millions of Current Voters Bring Their Families’ Own Histories to the Voting Booth.  IRCA granted residency to nearly 2.7 million people, including 2.4 million Latinos, many of whom have since become U.S citizens.  Additionally, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that 3.8 million formerly undocumented people overall have received green cards (and become eligible for citizenship) through various means from 1986 to 2009.  This includes legislation like IRCA, NACARA or the Chinese Student Protection Act, as well as the Cuban adjustment program.  Overall, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 9.2 million registered voters across the nation are naturalized citizens, including 8.3 million who voted in the 2008 election.  Latino voter expert and University of Washington political science professor Matt Barreto examined IRCA’s impact on California politics, writing on Latino Decisions, “it is not only that some Latino voters may have friends or family members who face immigration status issues, but for as many as 1.3 million Latino U.S. citizens in California, they themselves used to be undocumented immigrants, who had their status adjusted per IRCA.” 
  • Many Other Voters Have a Personal Stake in the Immigration Debate.  Not only do millions of naturalized voters bring their own family history with IRCA and other immigration laws to the immigration debate, but many others have a current personal connection to the issue as well.  For example, 2010 polling of Latino voters in twelve states by Bendixen & Amandi found that 62% of Latino voters have a friend, neighbor, relative or coworker who is undocumented.  This year, polling by Latino Decisions demonstrated the same trend, with 53% of Latino voters saying that they know someone who is undocumented and 25% saying that they know someone who has faced deportation.
  • It’s Little Wonder that Millions of Voters Don’t Take Kindly to Republican Anti-Immigrant Talk.  Polling has consistently shown that immigration is among the top voting issues for Latinos, as well as a defining, “threshold” issue for these voters.  In a 2010 election eve poll conducted by Latino Decisions in eight states, 83% of Latino voters said that immigration was an important issue in their voting decisions, and fully 60% said it was the most important issue or one of the most important issues.  In June 2010, a LatinoMetrics poll on behalf of the Hispanic Federation and LULAC asked Latino voters for their “top issue of personal concern” and immigration, at 24%, ranked a close second to the 25% of respondents saying “jobs” or “the economy.”  In July 2010, polling for NALEO by Dr. Ricardo Ramirez of the University of Southern California asked, “What general issues would be most important to you in deciding whom to vote for?”  Immigration ranked first at 27%, with the economy and jobs at 23.5%.  Perhaps most relevant given the way many Republicans are discussing immigration on the campaign trail, polling of Latino voters in twelve states by Bendixen & Amandi found that 72% of Latino voters would not even consider voting for a congressional candidate who was in favor of forcing most undocumented immigrants to leave the country (only 19% of Latino voters said they would even consider it). 

Concluded Sharry, “Voters from immigrant families are Americans by choice who want to be respected, not demonized, for their contributions to the land they love.  And they believe immigrants of today, who want nothing more than the same opportunity for a better life in this country that they now enjoy, should be legalized, not criminalized.”  

America’s Voice — Harnessing the power of American voices and American values to win common sense immigration reform.