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Pundits Should Listen to Voters on Immigration

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Fallout Over Arizona’s Anti-Immigration Law More Likely to Help Democrats, Hurt GOP

Washington, DC – News coverage of this week’s ruling on the Arizona anti-immigrant law is re-igniting the debate over comprehensive immigration reform and the need for a federal solution.  But as Washington pundits analyze the political implications of the judge’s decision, they are turning to outdated thinking instead of real facts from real elections.  Conventional wisdom in Washington has it that the Obama Administration’s lawsuit, and success this week in court, will hurt congressional Democrats in swing districts and help Republicans mobilize their base.  Once again, these experts prove that they have a superficial understanding of the politics of immigration. 

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “The Arizona law and Wednesday’s ruling only heightens the public’s desire for a federal immigration solution.  While polls show the Arizona law is popular with voters, these same surveys show comprehensive immigration reform is even more popular.  The public is hungry for leaders in Washington to solve this problem, and they will reward politicians who cut through the rhetoric to offer real solutions.” 

Some points to consider about the politics of immigration:

  • Conventional wisdom has consistently been wrong:  While running on a hard-line immigration stance may work in some Republican primaries, it has not proven to be successful in the vast majority of general election campaigns.  Polling in swing districts and states consistently shows that comprehensive immigration reform is supported by a majority of voters because it is a practical solution that increases the tax base and restores order to the system.  In 2006 and 2008, comprehensive reform candidates consistently trounced hard-line candidates in close races.  An America’s Voice report found that in twenty of twenty-two contested congressional races in 2008, the losers advocated a deportation-only agenda and the winners supported more comprehensive policies.  According to the late Richard Nadler, a GOP activist who studied the role of immigration in 2008 House races: “Immigration was a wedge issue benefiting the Democratic Party, but not the GOP.”
  • The American people have complex views on immigration, and support pragmatic approaches to fixing the problem: Voters want the problem of illegal immigration solved and want a national solution instead of a state-by state approach.  A number of recent surveys have shown that while the Arizona immigration law is popular, comprehensive immigration reform enjoys even wider support.  Bi-partisan nationwide polling conducted by Lake Research Partners and Public Opinion Strategies found that 60% of voters support the Arizona law with 23% opposed.  This support for Arizona’s SB1070 reflects people’s frustration over Washington’s failure to act on immigration reform.  Even more voters–78%–support federal, comprehensive immigration reform.  Notably, 84% of those who support the Arizona law also support comprehensive immigration reform, and by a margin of 60% to 18%, voters want the federal government to act instead of letting the states decide.  
  • Republicans in Washington have formed a wall of resistance to working on immigration reform, leaving states like Arizona floundering under the weight of a problem that must be solved at the national level. While some Republicans are calling on the Obama Administration to “make immigration reform a priority” following the judge’s decision, the fact is these same politicians have done nothing to advance the issue this year, and even refused to work with Democrats on a reform proposal this spring.  By insisting on “border first” proposals as a precondition for engaging on broader reforms, Arizona’s own Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain are also blocking the only approach that they know will work at a time when Arizona and the rest of the country desperately needs a solution.
  • Latino voters are re-engaged and energized by immigration:  While conventional wisdom has it that western Democrats in close races have the most to “lose” from the court’s ruling, the exact opposite is true.  Conservative voters were already motivated to turn out and vote against Democrats this cycle; it is the Democratic base, including the crucial Latino voter group, that needed a reason to show up.  In Nevada, Florida, Colorado, Arizona, and elsewhere, new polling shows that the fallout over Arizona’s anti-immigration law is having a mobilizing effect on Latinos, and defining the good guys and bad guys in a way that will hurt Republicans and help Democrats if sustained through the fall.  For example, a recent poll from LatinoMetrics, co-sponsored by the Hispanic Federation and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), found that “since the end of 2009, immigration has catapulted to the top issue of personal concern among 1 in 4 Latinos -tied with jobs & the economy.”  A poll of Latino voters in CA, CO, FL, and TX from Dr. Ricardo Ramirez of the University of Southern California, for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund (NALEO), similarly found that 70% of Latino voters are likely to vote this year and an additional 8% said it was possible; over half of them (57%) cited the current immigration debate as the reason they are more likely to vote.  Notably, 54% of the NALEO poll respondents said a candidate or party espousing an immigration position they disagreed with would be less likely to vote for that candidate, even if they agreed with most of that candidate or party’s positions on other issues.  According to Arturo Vargas, NALEO’s Executive Director, “Latinos are feeling less optimistic and more under siege.”

Ironically, the Republican Party’s continued embrace of its restrictionist wing—the most visible example being the debate over the Arizona anti-immigration law—could do very little to win new voters to the GOP, and a lot to further motivate and alienate the fastest-growing group of new voters in the nation.  Now that’s a true read on the politics of immigration in 2010.

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