Are Democrats Still Winning on Immigration?

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

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 backby 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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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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