Immigration Isn’t A Slam-Dunk Issue for Democrats Anymore

Polling shows the public is divided on immigration reform, while divisions within the Democratic party are worsening.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 07: Immigration reform protesters march during an immigration rally July 7, 2014 in Washington, DC. Participants condemned 'the President's response to the crisis of unaccompanied children and families fleeing violence and to demand administrative relief for all undocumented families'. Following the rally, the protesters marched in front of the White House.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
July 17, 2014, 1 a.m.

Polling the pub­lic on policy pref­er­ences is an in­her­ently tricky is­sue. Chan­ging the pre­cise word­ing and fram­ing of ques­tions can eli­cit dra­mat­ic­ally dif­fer­ent res­ults. Even the same poll can yield con­tra­dict­ory sen­ti­ments from the same people. Voters can say they sup­port en­ti­tle­ment cuts, yet cher­ish their So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care be­ne­fits at the same time. Or sup­port more-lim­ited Amer­ic­an en­gage­ment over­seas, while be­ing dis­sat­is­fied with Pres­id­ent Obama’s pass­ive lead­er­ship on for­eign policy.

The list goes on. It’s re­mark­ably easy for any in­terest group to cherry-pick find­ings that match its policy pref­er­ences, or worse, tail­or poll ques­tions de­signed to eli­cit a cer­tain re­sponse. And truth be told, most “av­er­age” voters don’t have time to pay close at­ten­tion to the spe­cif­ic policy de­bates tak­ing place on Cap­it­ol Hill, and their opin­ions on hot-but­ton is­sues are aw­fully mal­le­able.

Which brings me to the is­sue of im­mig­ra­tion re­form. You’d think, based on the Re­pub­lic­an hand-wringing on the sub­ject, that sig­ni­fic­ant ma­jor­it­ies back a com­pre­hens­ive pack­age along the lines of what the Sen­ate passed in June. But the real­ity, like with many oth­er is­sues, is that pub­lic opin­ion is mixed. A CBS News poll in May found a sig­ni­fic­ant 56 per­cent ma­jor­ity said se­cur­ing the bor­der was a high­er pri­or­ity than deal­ing with il­leg­al im­mig­rants, but more than half also said that il­leg­al im­mig­rants should stay in the coun­try, and even­tu­ally ap­ply for cit­izen­ship. Nearly two-thirds of re­spond­ents told Gal­lup in June that “im­mig­ra­tion was a good thing,” but a 41 per­cent plur­al­ity said im­mig­ra­tion to this coun­try should be de­creased. Only 33 per­cent of voters said they ap­prove of Pres­id­ent Obama’s hand­ling of the cur­rent bor­der crisis, ac­cord­ing to a new ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post poll, but a 53 per­cent ma­jor­ity sup­port his spend­ing plan to deal with the crisis.

Mean­while, im­mig­ra­tion, which routinely lagged as a sec­ond­ary pri­or­ity for most voters des­pite the in­creased at­ten­tion from Con­gress and the me­dia, is now the top is­sue for voters, ac­cord­ing to a new Gal­lup sur­vey. The surge in in­terest is in re­ac­tion to the flood of un­ac­com­pan­ied Cent­ral Amer­ic­an minors to the bor­der””an is­sue that an­im­ates Re­pub­lic­an voters, in par­tic­u­lar.

The con­ven­tion­al wis­dom has long held that im­mig­ra­tion is the equi­val­ent of Krypton­ite for Re­pub­lic­ans: If they don’t pass com­pre­hens­ive re­form, their party is writ­ing its own ex­tinc­tion. In­deed, GOP of­fi­cials have been pub­licly tele­graph­ing their own vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies on the sub­ject for years, high­lighted by a 2013 RNC-com­mis­sioned re­port where im­mig­ra­tion was the only policy area where the au­thors re­com­men­ded the party mod­er­ate its po­s­i­tion­ing.

But what if that isn’t the case? A look at the cur­rent polit­ics sur­round­ing im­mig­ra­tion sug­gest that Demo­crats are fa­cing as much con­flict­ing in­tern­al pres­sures from the cur­rent bor­der crisis as Re­pub­lic­ans face from their own base when it comes to “am­nesty,” or leg­al­iz­ing il­leg­al im­mig­rants. Pres­id­ent Obama is caught between his base, which has been push­ing him to treat the mi­grants as refugees and settle them in the coun­try, and the ma­jor­ity of voters, who be­lieve that most should be re­turned to their home coun­tries.

The di­vide was ex­em­pli­fied by Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley, a pro­spect­ive 2016 pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate, who cri­ti­cized the ad­min­is­tra­tion from the left for speed­ing up the de­port­a­tion pro­cess. He said the pres­id­ent was “sum­mar­ily send[ing] chil­dren to death” by for­cing them to re­turn home. (The White House has an­grily fired back by se­lect­ively leak­ing un­fa­vor­able de­tails from a meet­ing with the gov­ernor.) From the middle, bor­der-dis­trict Rep. Henry Cuel­lar, a Texas Demo­crat, has at­tacked the pres­id­ent for be­ing neg­li­gent in hand­ling the crisis, even call­ing it Obama’s Kat­rina mo­ment. He’s in­tro­duced le­gis­la­tion with GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas de­signed to speed up the de­port­a­tion pro­cess for kids de­tained at the bor­der.

At the same time, a batch of new NBC/Mar­ist battle­ground Sen­ate polls sug­gest that pav­ing a path for cit­izen­ship for il­leg­al im­mig­rants””the ma­jor com­pon­ent of im­mig­ra­tion re­form””is hardly the slam dunk that sup­port­ers of­ten claim. In Iowa, a nar­row plur­al­ity op­poses a path­way to cit­izen­ship (46 per­cent to 48 per­cent); voters are di­vided evenly (at 47 per­cent) in Michigan, while a nar­row plur­al­ity sup­ports it in New Hamp­shire (48 per­cent to 47 per­cent). Only in Col­or­ado, with a sig­ni­fic­ant His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tion, is there wide­spread sup­port (55 per­cent to 40 per­cent) for a path­way to cit­izen­ship. These are all states Pres­id­ent Obama car­ried in 2012.

To be sure, Re­pub­lic­ans need to make in­roads with His­pan­ic voters in or­der to com­pete na­tion­ally, but that doesn’t mean a sweep­ing im­mig­ra­tion bill is the only an­swer for the party’s chal­lenges. Simply sound­ing a more com­pas­sion­ate tone when talk­ing about im­mig­ra­tion would go a long way for the GOP, ca­ri­ca­tured as a party dom­in­ated by white men. Re­lat­ing more to the needs of im­mig­rant com­munit­ies and ad­voc­at­ing policies that pro­mote mo­bil­ity would be good first steps. Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, who took a hit with con­ser­vat­ives for his sup­port of im­mig­ra­tion re­form, is now tak­ing that al­tern­ate tack.

For a long time, im­mig­ra­tion has been viewed as a polit­ic­al win-win situ­ation for Demo­crats, no mat­ter what Re­pub­lic­ans did. Block le­gis­la­tion from passing, and His­pan­ics will nev­er sup­port Re­pub­lic­ans again. Sup­port com­pre­hens­ive re­form, and hand the pres­id­ent a polit­ic­al vic­tory without any guar­an­tee it would broaden the GOP’s ap­peal.

But the latest crisis is un­der­scor­ing that some im­mig­ra­tion is­sues are vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies for Demo­crats, too. Most Amer­ic­ans want a se­cure bor­der and don’t back auto­mat­ic cit­izen­ship for any­one seek­ing to enter the coun­try. It’s dif­fi­cult to find many com­munit­ies, even lib­er­al-minded ones, that are eager to house bus­loads of un­doc­u­mented chil­dren. Even O’Mal­ley, the lead­ing cham­pi­on for the un­doc­u­mented chil­dren, was re­portedly reti­cent about hous­ing them in his state.

Right now, the situ­ation on the bor­der looks chaot­ic, and that’s not a good place for a gov­ern­ing party to be in. And if Re­pub­lic­ans can forge a bi­par­tis­an solu­tion with more-mod­er­ate Demo­crats, such as Cuel­lar, by fo­cus­ing on fix­ing the prob­lem at hand, they may re­ceive a big­ger polit­ic­al boost than by passing com­pre­hens­ive le­gis­la­tion whose im­plic­a­tions most Amer­ic­ans don’t fully un­der­stand.

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