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It Was a Hot Summer, But More Heat than Light in Immigration Debate

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The Top 5 Immigration Storylines You May Have Missed This Summer

Washington, DC – As summer wanes, Congress returns to Washington, and the 2010 campaign cycle moves into overdrive, America’s Voice has prepared a recap of the major storylines on the politics of immigration this summer.  It’s clear that the Arizona immigration law is already impacting the 2010 elections—but not, perhaps, the way supporters expected.  While the controversy over the Arizona law dominated political news all summer, polls of general election voters continue to show overwhelming support for comprehensive immigration reform.  

Latino Voters Could Prove Decisive in Key Races, If Motivated to Turn Out

Much is made about voter support for Arizona’s “papers, please” immigration law, and it has become the immigration issue candidates at all levels are confronting.  While the law may be popular with many voters, it’s decidedly unpopular with the Latino electorate.  As a number of polls have highlighted, immigration has joined the economy and jobs as the top voting issue for Latinos.  Fallout over the Arizona immigration debate, as well as the Republican Party’s posture on comprehensive immigration reform, continues to hurt GOP candidates.  According to new tracking polling from Latino Decisions, only 23% of Latino voters are planning to support the Republican candidate for Congress this year, and 65% say they are less excited about the GOP than they were when Obama took office.  Fully 74% of Latino voters say that the GOP is either ignoring or blocking immigration reform, a key factor in their analysis. 

But some Democrats have jumped on the Arizona bandwagon, bashing immigration reform and demanding that their states adopt similar laws (see stories from Politico, IndyStar.com, and the Washington Post for examples).  The Democratic Party also has to contend with the fact that they are in charge of Congress and the White House, but immigration reform hasn’t moved forward as expected.  According to Latino Decisions’ latest poll, 65% of Latinos identify as Democrats, but only 54% plan to vote Democratic in the 2010 elections (23% are undecided).  The poll clearly points to an “enthusiasm gap that is being driven by frustration over the lack of attention to immigration reform.”    

The bottom line?  We will see.  Latino voters are cross-pressured and the turnout results will depend on factors at play in individual races.  For example, we may see higher turnout in races where candidates have demonized them, or where candidates have proven to be strong champions of comprehensive immigration reform.  And there may be lower turnout in races where neither is the case.  That calculus will prove crucial in at least forty battleground 2010 races where Latino voters are poised to make a difference, according to the August 2010 update of this America’s Voice report, and will become critical in even more races, including the presidency, in 2012.

First Casualty of the Immigration Wars: Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum

One politician who learned this lesson the hard way is Florida Attorney General (and former gubernatorial candidate) Bill McCollum (R).  In his contested primary against Rick Scott (R-FL), McCollum made a fatal decision to embrace anti-immigration politics.  With a moderate record on immigration and strong support from Latino Republicans, McCollum was baited into following Scott on immigration, and introduced his own, “tougher” version of the Arizona law in the home stretch before the primary.  McCollum rapidly lost support from Latino leaders and turnout in heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade County—which was expected to pave McCollum’s road to victory—topped out at less than 17% compared to 21% statewide.  According to a recent poll commissioned by NALEO, 55% of Florida Latinos said that the current immigration debate made them more likely to vote in the November 2010 elections, and 60% of Florida Latinos said they were certain, very likely, or somewhat likely to vote against a political party or candidate who took a disagreeable position on immigration, even if they agreed with that candidate/party on most other issues.  These days, Scott has been seen courting Latino leaders in Florida, and the only candidate in the Senate race who has not declared support for comprehensive immigration reform, Marco Rubio (R), has been struggling to find a new, more moderate voice on the issue.

With Primaries Behind Them, Whitman and Fiorina Fumble Back Toward the Center — And Struggle With the Translation 

With the lessons from 1994’s anti-immigrant Proposition 187 still fresh in many California Republicans’ minds, statewide GOP candidates are trying to walk a tightrope between courting anti-immigration voices during the primary and broadening their appeal during the general elections.  California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman (R) and U.S. Senate candidate Carly Fiorina (R) are each in close general election races and trying to distance themselves from rightward drifts on immigration during the primaries, when Whitman featured her support from former Governor and Prop. 187 champion Pete Wilson and Fiorina expressed sympathy for the Arizona anti-immigrant law.  Recognizing that Latinos in California comprise 21% of the electorate, both Whitman and Fiorina are now engaged in massive Spanish language outreach efforts, and are breathing down the necks of their Democratic opponents.  The success or failure of the Whitman and Fiorina campaigns may hinge on their rebranding efforts, and whether former Governor Jerry Brown (D) and Senator Barbara Boxer (D) capitalize on Whitman and Fiorina’s, um, translation issues.

Arizona Governor Loses Her Head

Clearly, Arizona has cemented its reputation as “ground zero” for the immigration debate.  This summer saw the rise of Governor Jan Brewer (R) as a national figure, the demise of J.D. Hayworth (R) as a Senate contender, and the reinvention of Senator John McCain (R) as a tough-talking border hawk.  Gov. Brewer beat back primary challengers in part because of the red meat she provided the Republican base, by defending the state’s “papers, please” immigration law in the courts and on cable TV.  However, her recent debate performance and her continued factual inaccuracies about immigrants and crime show that she’s not quite ready for prime time.  Meanwhile, attacked from the anti-immigrant right by zealot J.D. Hayworth, Senator John McCain ended up winning by twenty-four points, dealing a crushing blow to the anti-immigrant movement that wanted nothing more than to defeat McCain.  Of course, he embraced a hard-line on immigration policy during the primaries, but McCain’s previous support for comprehensive immigration reform and back-tracking on the issue clearly wasn’t the liability that Hayworth and others proclaimed.

Arizona Aside, Voters Prefer Comprehensive Immigration Reform to Deportation-Only Solutions

Rather than running scared on the immigration issue, candidates in both parties could learn a lot by really understanding the dozens of immigration polls that find strong support for comprehensive immigration reform.  Wise politicians could court both Latino and non-Latino voters with the same smart policy if they took the time to understand what’s behind public frustration with the broken immigration system.  Americans increasingly see the illegal immigration problem as an example of how Washington simply does not work.  While many voters do support Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration law, they support federal, comprehensive immigration reform at the same or even stronger levels.  Instead of being a contradiction, this shows that American public opinion on immigration issues is driven by a desire for action on a problem that has been unattended for too long, and that the public understands that the best approach is national, comprehensive immigration reform.

For example, a recent poll from FOX News (yes, FOX News) found that 68% of voters—including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents—say efforts to secure the border should be combined with reform of federal immigration laws by Congress.  What do they mean by reform of federal immigration laws?  Sixty-eight percent of Fox News poll respondents declared support for “allowing illegal immigrants who pay taxes and obey the law to stay in the United States.”  A new IPSOS poll of likely Colorado voters found that by 64 to 34%, Colorado voters agreed that “A person residing here illegally in the United States with a clean record should be able to pay a fine, their taxes, and then have the opportunity to become U.S. citizens.”  In contrast to their support for a sensible earned citizenship plan, Colorado voters rejected blanket deportation proposals by a 58 to 40% margin.

This fall, we’ll be watching to see if Republican candidates move away from anti-immigrant stances they championed during the primaries; whether Democratic candidates embrace comprehensive reform instead of enforcement-only strategies; whether Latino voters have a reason to show up in November; and what impact they have on a number of races.  Please visit the website of America’s Voice for frequent updates and information about the politics of immigration in 2010.

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