No Surprise! Party Identification and Illegal Immigration

Nov 30 '12

We welcome a guest post by North Carolina State University’s Michael Cobb. 

In a recent WonkBlog post, Dan Hopkins argues that there is a surprising level of bipartisan agreement about legal immigration. Here, I tackle a different dimension to immigration—illegal immigration. And, when it comes to policy proposals for addressing illegal immigration, partisanship still very much drives preferences. Consequently, Republican leaders in Congress are caught in a bind. They are trapped between needing to moderate their positions about illegal immigration to court Hispanic voters and their inability to do so without alienating their supporters.

In the 2012 presidential election, Romney lost decisively among Hispanic voters, earning just 27% of their votes. That showing was actually worse than when McCain captured 31% of the Hispanic vote in 2008. Despite the new-found media attention to this demographic problem, Republicans have not been blind to this emerging demographic dilemma. Back in April, Frank Luntz penned an article in which he claimed that Republicans’ preference for deportation was a myth. According to Luntz, “only a tiny fraction would support a shortsighted (and fiscally unfeasible) blanket policy of deporting the illegal immigrants already here.”

Fortunately, survey data exists to examine Luntz’ claim. The results not only reveal a consistently large partisan gap about how to manage illegal immigration, but also a solid Republican preference for deportation. To start, a CNN/ORC poll conducted July 16-21, 2010 asked, “What should be the main focus of the U.S. government in dealing with the issue of illegal immigration–developing a plan that would allow illegal immigrants who have jobs to become legal U.S. residents, or developing a plan for stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. and for deporting those already here?” Although the question wording fails to isolate deportation as a single option, answers nevertheless reveal fundamentally different priorities among partisans. Three-quarters of Republicans (73%) answered that deportation and stopping the flow should be our priority. Meanwhile, just 39% of Democrats expressed that sentiment.

A TNS Opinion poll for Transatlantic Trends in 2011 asked a similar question. Although it didn’t use the word “deportation,” it isolated the effective equivalent of “requiring illegal immigrants to be returned to their home country.” Similarly, 66% of Republicans, but just 34% of Democrats, said illegal immigrants must be returned home. Furthermore, another question finds that 7 in 10 Republicans don’t believe citizenship should be granted to children of illegal immigrants who are born here (just 36% of Democrats agreed). In light of these data, Governor Romney’s attacks on Gov. Rick Perry as being soft on immigration during the GOP primary make more sense.

To further establish the breadth of the partisan divide, the CNN/ORC survey reveals that 75% of Republicans and just 30% of Democrats favor the immigration law passed in Arizona that was widely condemned by Hispanic interest groups. Likewise, a majority of Republicans support building a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico (58%), while a majority of Democrats opposes that plan (61%). Finally, the intensity of attitudes also varies. When asked how the number of illegal immigrants made respondents feel, twice as many Republicans as Democrats reported feeling “angry” (32% versus 16%).

Given the immediate discussion of demographics following Romney’s loss, perhaps attitudes changed in response to leading Republicans’ changing rhetoric? I was able to find two surveys about illegal immigration taken right after the election. In short, the partisan gap remains large.

The Congressional Connection Poll from Nov. 8–11 asked, “Some experts believe there are as many as 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States today. Which ONE of the following steps, if any, do you think the government should take to deal with illegal immigrants?” The “harshest” option, “Deport all illegal immigrants, no matter how long they have been in the U.S,” was supported by 29% of Republicans, but only 5% of Democrats. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from Nov. 7-11 asked, “Do you support or oppose a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants?” While a solid majority of Democrats supported a path to citizenship (71%), 60% of Republicans opposed that option.

One problem I encountered is that very few survey firms ask similarly worded questions, and their answer options are sometimes convoluted. Yet, even these data demonstrate how deeply divided Americans are about illegal immigration. And if illegal immigration is the pivotal dimension to overall immigration reform, which I think it is, this only underscores the difficult situation Republican leaders find themselves in. Even if the Republican office holders don’t truly favor harsh policies, their voters certainly do.