What Latinos Want in an Immigration Reform Bill

by Gary Segura on November 29, 2012

The results of the 2012 election have awakened the Republican Party to their impending demographic disaster. Substantial growth in the size and power of the Latino vote—and an overwhelming tilt in that vote against their nominee—paints a bleak future for Republican electability. Coupled with startling Democratic vote share among Asian Americans (73%), and an ever more resolute and motivated African American vote, demography may be destiny for the GOP.

For both Latinos and Asian Americans, immigration looms large as an impediment to GOP improvement in these communities. This reality—long denied by both parties—has become abundantly clear. In impreMedia/Latino Decisions’ Election Eve polling 57% of Latino voters said that Romney’s positions on immigration made them “less enthusiastic” about the Governor. Among Asian American Voters in our Asian Decisions Election Eve survey, an identical number, 57%, reported favoring comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship. In our collaborative poll for the NAACP, 80% of African American voters in four battlegrounds states favored the same comprehensive approach.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Senators Schumer and Graham announced that they had reinitiated negotiations, while pundits as surprising as Sean Hannity announced that the GOP had to get the immigration issue “behind” them.

This development inevitably raises the question of what Latino voters want in an immigration reform effort. To accomplish Hannity’s hope of putting the issue to rest, it would do the GOP little good to deliver an immigration outcome with widespread Latino opposition. That will be a difficult temptation to resist, however, since strong resistance to immigration and immigration reform among certain quarters of the GOP will push to have the legislation deliver as little as possible.

Over the last 18 months, impreMedia and Latino Decisions repeatedly polled Latino registered voters specifically about their preferences regarding changes in US immigration policy. Based on that poll and our more recent work, here are our observations regarding the “must haves” in any comprehensive reform.

Meaningful adjustment of status with a path to citizenship
. Latino voters, indeed ALL voters, prefer a comprehensive reform plan that includes a path to citizenship. For non-Latinos, the preferred path is an “earned” citizenship, which likely includes provisions regarding back taxes and learning English. But the bottom line is that the creation of a permanent alien class, guest workers or another form of residency that never turns into full social membership, is a non-starter.

In our June 2011 poll, 75% of Latino registered voters wanted a comprehensive approach with a path to citizenship while only 14% preferred a “guest worker” approach. In November of 2011, we asked the same question to a sample of all American registered voters, regardless of race and ethnicity. We found then that 58% of all registered voters (including 53% of self-identified Republicans) favored a path to citizenship, while only 14% preferred the guest worker approach and only 25% favored deportation. Curiously, Fox news repeated our question on their December 2011 poll and found the same results—although support for a path to citizenship was actually higher in Fox’s poll among all citizens and Republicans alike!

Latinos voters are simply not going to be happy with an outcome that keeps Latino immigrants on the margins of society. And if the GOP is identified as the key obstacle stopping a path to citizenship for Latino immigrants, the party will have accomplished little towards Sean Hannity’s goal of getting the issue behind them. Should the GOP lead a bill with too many punitive measures, or should the bill pass with little GOP support, any electoral advantage that might come to the GOP from moving the immigration issue forward could be lost or, worse, backfire. Our election eve poll found that 31% of our respondents would be more likely to support a Republican if the party took the lead on reforming immigration. Electoral benefits, alas, will require constructive action.

Reasonable, but not excessive, prerequisites to status adjustment: The debate over comprehensive immigration reform is also likely to produce considerable disagreement regarding the requirements to adjust status for those already living in the US without documents. In June 2011, we asked a sample of Latino registered voters what their views were with respect to several of the provisions debated in the 2006 and 2007 efforts.

Latino voters are very comfortable with requirements regarding old or outstanding taxes, criminal background checks, continuous residence in the US and the learning of English. The community is more or less evenly divided on a provision for directly fining people, and a majority oppose touch-back provisions that requires undocumented residents of the US to return to nations of origin to complete the paperwork process.
More generous treatment of “Dream”-eligible youth. By now, the polling in all aspect of American society is well understood. Americans by very large margins are uncomfortable and unhappy with subjecting minors with punitive measures when they committed no violation of their own. In November of 2011, 58% of all voters regardless of race or ethnicity supported the Dream Act, compared with only 28% opposed. Among Latinos, the numbers were 84% support to 11% opposition.

The Dream Act as a stand-alone measure is popular but would not, by itself, solve the GOP problem with Latino voters. In the presence of a more comprehensive reform, however, young people brought to the US by their parents, who are achieving, should receive more favorable treatment under a comprehensive plan.

Majorities of all Americans, even a majority of all Republicans, favor a comprehensive approach to immigration reform that includes a path to US citizenship. Similarly, large majorities of all Americans see immigrant youth—blameless for their presence is the US –deserve more favorable treatment. And there is considerable consensus among Latino voters regarding reasonable requirements for status adjustment.

Gary Segura is Co-Founder and Principal of Latino Decisions, which distributed this article. He is a Professor of American Politics at Stanford University, where he is also Chair of Chicana/o Studies, Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity.

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