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Immigration & 2016: Taking Stock After Iowa

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In the aftermath of the Iowa caucus, here’s our assessment of the state of play for immigration politics.

For Republicans: 

The Entire GOP Field Has Lurched Hard Right on Immigration and Sunk the GOP Brand to the Bottom with Latino and Immigrant Voters: The entire Republican presidential field pledges to ramp up enforcement, block an achievable path to legalization and citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and end immigration executive action programs such as DACA, which has benefited more than 700,000 Dreamers. The second-place finisher in Iowa, Donald Trump, has ushered in a GOP-wide scramble to the far right on immigration and attempted to mainstream hate and racism toward Mexicans, Muslims and the “other,” calling for a “Deportation Force” to implement his mass-deportation plan.  Iowa caucus winner Ted Cruz, meanwhile, has adopted an immigration stance that is to the right of Mitt Romney’s, with Cruz now opposed to any earned legalization policy for undocumented immigrants; openly calling for  “attrition through enforcement” (an idea taken directly from extreme anti-immigrant groups and the same concept underlying Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” stance);  embracing significant new restrictions on legal immigration; and proudly trumpeting his association with ultra-immigration hardliners such as Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) and Rep. Steve King (R-IA).  Little wonder that the GOP brand image is growing even more tarnished among Latino voters, as recent polling from MSNBC/Telemundo/Maristand Latino Decisions/impreMedia underscore.

Marco Rubio is Not the GOP’s Immigration Savior: Marco Rubio is trying to using his third-place finish last night to advance the idea that he has the momentum in the race and can be the GOP’s general election savior.  But he’s far from a pro-immigrant candidate, and there’s little evidence he could refurbish the tarnished Republican brand on immigration.  In fact, Rubio favors aggressive immigration enforcement-first policies that would end up looking an awful lot like self-deportation – his “path to citizenship” has more to do with fooling donors and journalists and trying to avoid a “flip-flop” label than it does with fixing our broken immigration system and delivering a real path forward for the undocumented (see here for our detailed assessment of Rubio’s immigration planand why we view it as self-deportation with a false promise of citizenship).  Rubio also pledges to cancel DACA even without substitute legislation in place and is a staunch opponent of DAPA as well.  There is significant distrust of Rubio among pro-immigrant voters – see this recent Medium post by America’s Voice Digital Campaign Manager, Juan Escalante, on “10 Times Marco Rubio Turned His Back on Immigrants,” (available online here).

Immigration the Lowest Ranked Issue Among Iowa Republican Caucus ParticipantsNetwork entrance pollinggauging Republican caucus-goers’ top issue priority found that immigration ranked a distant fourth of the four issues tested – just 13% of GOP caucus participants ranked immigration as the top issue, ranking the issue far behind “government spending” (32%), “economy/jobs” (27%), and “terrorism” (25%).  While there’s no doubt that anti-immigrant rhetoric has been ascendant in the Republican primary circles, there’s little evidence that whipping up a frenzy over this issue is in fact whipping up new, untapped voters.  In fact, this Republican lurch to the right will only come back to haunt whoever emerges as the nominee, since the general electorate as a whole still strongly supports policies allowing undocumented immigrants to stay legally over deportation-focused approaches and the Latino, APIA, and immigrant vote will be decisive in November 2016.

GOP Repeating the Mistakes of Mitt Romney to their General Election Peril: Despite immigration ranking at the bottom of GOP caucus-goers’ tested “top priorities,” the Republican candidates have each defined themselves as hardliners in a manner reminiscent to Mitt Romney in the 2012 campaign.  In 2012, Latino voters ended up supporting President Obama by a 75%-23%margin over Mitt Romney in the 2012 general election, according to Latino Decisions Election Eve polling (71%-27% in media-sponsored exit polls), in large part due to Romney’s call for the “self-deportation” of 11 million undocumented immigrants, his pledge to veto the DREAM Act, and his endorsement of the Arizona crackdown on immigrants as a model for the nation.  After the 2012 election, Romney’s former campaign manager and the infamous RNC post-election autopsy reporteach highlighted how Romney’s hardline immigration positions adopted during the primary were a key factor in driving away Latino voters.  Given the increase in the number and share of Latino voters expected to vote in the 2016 general electorate, Latino Decisions estimates that the Republican nominee will need to win between 42-47% of Latinos to win the 2016 presidential popular vote.  It’s clear that the 2016 primary season has moved the Republican Party in the opposite direction from that target percentage.

For Democrats:

Martin O’Malley Helped Push the Rest of the Democratic Field to Adopt Assertive, Pro-Immigrant Positions: With O’Malley officially bowing out of the race after Iowa, it’s worth noting that his strong pro-immigrant recordas Governor of Maryland and assertive pro-immigrant policy stances and rhetoric as a candidate helped encourage Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to articulate strong policies early on in the primary battle.  In contrast to past election cycles, the entire Democratic field has now unanimously adopted pro-immigrant stances – including strong support for immigration reform with a path to citizenship and for protecting and expanding immigration executive action programs, which is no small feat so early on in the election.

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Down-Ballot Democrats Need to Keep Leaning into Immigration: Recent election cycles show that depending on how Democrats engage the issue of immigration, they can either motivate more voters to turn out in support for them or leave important numbers of voters under-enthusiastic and at risk of disengaging.  Immigration is a “gateway” issue for Latino voters. When 58% of Latino voters know someone who is undocumented, and another 85% of undocumented immigrants report having a U.S. citizen relative, immigration isn’t an abstract policy debate, it’s about families.  It’s personal. Democrats experienced the benefits of a “lean in” immigration strategy in 2010 and 2012.  But Democrats backtracked during the 2014 midterm election cycle and paid the price with low turnout from Latino voters.  In 2016, maximizing voter turnout among growing portions of the new American electorate, especially Latino voters, will be crucial to Democrats’ success up and down the ballot.  As the narrow results in Iowa last night demonstrate, an energized Latino electorate can help make a difference in closely contested races, even in states without a traditionally sizeable Latino electorate (Latinos were 4% of the Democratic caucus participants last night, per the network entrance polls).  Of course, in Latino-heavy primary and caucus states, such as the upcoming contest in Nevada, appeals to an energized Latino electorate will be a keystone of the Clinton and Sanders potential paths to victory.

If Not for Moral and Humanitarian Reasons, Politics Should Convince Democrats to Stop the Central American Refugee Raids: The Obama Administration’s home raidsagainst Central American refugees are causing panic and fear in the entire immigrant community.  There are many good reasons for the Administration to stop the raids – as both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have called for – but if the real life consequences do not convince Democrats, then maybe politics should.  Iowa-based immigration activist Monica Reyes recently said that some people are now afraid to open their doors to canvassers, not knowing who is knocking or why.

The Importance of Latino & Pro-Immigrant Voters: 

In Iowa, the Latino and Immigrant Communities Forced Candidates to Define Themselves on Immigration: The energy and presence of pro-immigrant voters in Iowa helped clarify candidates’ stances on important questions.  As Matt Hildreth of America’s Voice and Iowa’s Voice wrote on Univision.com: “As far back as August of 2014, immigration supporters confronted Rand Paul in Okobojiover his vote to end the widely successful Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). Since then, immigration supporters in Iowa have confronted every single major candidate running for President … Interactions between candidates and Iowa immigrants, including some who are undocumented, happened almost weekly … Iowa still matters because we set the stage for this year’s general election – and what was said in Iowa by GOP candidates as they kowtowed to Steve King impacts voters in key swing states like Florida, Nevada and Colorado, to name a few.  Thanks to Iowans, Latinos and other voters who care about immigration know where each candidate stands on this cycle’s most widely discussed issue.”

In November, Will Latino Voters Be Energized? recent report from Pew Researchdocumented the growing power of the Latino electorate, finding that the number of eligible Latino voters is 40% higher in 2016 than it was in 2008.  The report also found that Latino voting power remains under-mobilized, with turnout rates among eligible Latino voters lagging nearly 20 percentage points behind those of white and African-American eligible voters.  As a result, one of the most important questions in assessing the 2016 election cycle will be the extent to which Republicans’ embrace of anti-immigrant politics will backfire, motivating eligible Latino non-voters to register and mobilizing Latino registered voters to turn out.  Similarly, will Democrats lean into the issue of immigration and invest in the mobilization of Latinos or take the community’s support for granted?