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California Shows the Way on Immigration Debate; National GOP on Wrong Road

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In California, 3:1 Support for Path to Citizenship, Including 61% of GOP Respondents 

California’s passage of the notoriously anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994 ushered in a trend of policies aimed at cracking down at immigrants.  At the time, it appeared that this backlash would dominate the future politics of California and spread throughout the nation.

Instead, the long-term political implications of the anti-immigrant backlash in the mid-1990s was very different.  In response, Latino voters in California engaged politically like never before.  This mobilization, together with relentless demographic trends, helped to transform and push the politics of the state in a Democratic direction.  Additionally, as new polling from the Public Policy Institute of California underscores, the past two decades have seen the overwhelming majority of California voters’ sentiments move in a pro-immigrant and practical perspective on the key question in the immigration debate: what policy to advance for undocumented immigrants living and contributing to this nation.

As George Skelton, the prominent political columnist for the Los Angeles Times, reports:

“Times change. Attitudes soften. People get to know each other and chill.  Twenty-one years ago, California voters decided overwhelmingly — 59% of them — to deny public services for immigrants who came here illegally.  That included refusing to educate kids.  Courts tossed out most of Proposition 187.  But they couldn’t throw out the sentiment behind it.

Fast-forward to a dramatic reversal in opinion.  In a new statewide poll released Wednesday night, the Public Policy Institute of California reported that the vast majority of voters now favor providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants here illegally.

They’d need to meet certain conditions, including paying back-taxes, passing a criminal-background check, undergoing a waiting period and learning English.  Likely voters favored citizenship for these immigrants by 73% to 24%.  Even 61% of Republicans favored it, although nationally GOP politicians have been the biggest obstacle to immigration reform.  All ethnic and age groups strongly supported such citizenship.  So did every California region, whether blue or red … Why the turnaround?

‘So many Californians experience immigrants in their daily lives,’ said Mark Baldassare, the policy institute’s president and pollster. ‘And they’re positive experiences…We’ve seen in our polling that people consistently see immigrants as more of a benefit to the economy than a burden.  They know the importance of citizenship.  And they’re at the point where they just want a solution.’”

What the backers of Proposition 187 in California – and 2016 Republican contenders and Members of Congress who are pushing anti-immigrant measures today – consistently fail to appreciate is how most Latino voters view the immigration debate through an incredibly personal lens.  New polling from Latino Decisions, conducted on behalf of the RWJF Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexicofound that 61% of Latinos, regardless of citizenship status, reported knowing someone that is undocumented.  Additionally, 36% of Latinos know someone that has been detained and/or deported, and 46% of all Latinos worry that a friend or family might be detained or deported due to their immigration status.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “California’s political evolution on immigration issues foretells where this debate is headed nationally.  After an initial period of arrival and backlash, the next stages involve community mobilization, voter participation and political evolution.  California’s experiences also tell a more subtle story – that the more people share a community and actual interactions with immigrants, the politics of backlash yield to public recognition of the humanity and contributions of undocumented immigrants.  On both counts, the Republican Party and many of its 2016 presidential contenders are on the wrong side of history.”