Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Immigration policy is personal for Latinos

A comparison of survey data of Latinos over time suggests that Latinos’ attitudes toward immigration have become more liberal recently.
By Gabriel Sanchez, Latino Decisions

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The most interesting trend from the June impreMedia/Latino Decisions (LD) poll is the personal relationship that the Latino community has with immigration policies. As reported here earlier, a majority of these voters (53%) said they know someone who is undocumented, while one-fourth (25%) said they know a person or family member who is facing deportation or who has been deported. These are striking numbers, particularly given that our sample for the poll is registered voters, who by definition are citizens of the United States. When we explore the percentage of respondents who know someone who is undocumented across key demographic indicators, factors like nativity and language use do not have any marked impact on personal experiences with undocumented immigrants. In fact, Latinos who were born in the United States and who are English speakers are more likely to know someone who has faced detention or deportation due to immigration reasons (see Figure Below) compared to Latinos who are closer to the immigration experience. We believe that this firsthand knowledge of the consequences of immigration policy has led to a significant change in the attitudes toward immigration among the Latino electorate. This blog attempts to clarify this relationship after reviewing Latino’s policy preferences toward immigration over time. 

Public Opinion Toward Immigration Policy Among Latinos

Given that a sizable segment of the Latino population were born in a country other than the United States, it is often assumed that Latinos have a monolithic and liberal policy stance on immigration. However, public opinion surveys of the Latino population over time have indicated that this is not always the case. For example, the Latino National Political Survey (1990) indicated that 75 percent of Mexican Americans, 79 percent of Puerto Ricans, and 70 percent of Cuban Americans agreed with the statement that there are “too many” immigrants coming to the United States. Several surveys conducted over the next decade or so validated this initial and somewhat controversial finding. For example, The Knight Ridder /Mercury News survey in 2000 reported that forty-three percent of all Latinos nation-wide thought that the U.S. government was not doing enough to stop illegal immigration.

The Latino National Survey (2006) provides an opportunity to examine Latinos attitudes toward immigration during a time period when this policy area was particularly salient. When queried about their specific policy preferences regarding undocumented immigrants, 42% of Latinos favored immediate legalization of current undocumented immigrants. Another 32% of Latinos preferred a guest worker program leading to legalization eventually, with only 5% of Latinos preferring to see the border sealed or closed off to stop illegal immigration. Furthermore, a robust 91% of Latinos in the LNS indicated that immigrants strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents, compared to 9% who believed they were a burden due to taking away jobs, housing, and health care. The Collaborative Multiracial Political Survey (CMPS) from 2008 confirms this apparent shift in Latino immigration attitudes, as Latinos are more likely (49%) to “strongly agree” that immigration has a positive impact on their state’s economy, and “strongly agree” (63%) that illegal immigrants who graduate from U.S. high schools should qualify for in state college tuition when compared to other racial/ethnic groups. Furthermore, Latino Decisions' polls conducted over the past several years have consistently indicated that immigration policy is salient to Latino voters, and that a wide majority of the Latino electorate favors a pathway to citizenship status. Therefore, a comparison of survey data of Latinos over time suggests that Latinos’ attitudes toward immigration have become more liberal recently.

What Explains This Shift in Attitudes?

We believe that the increased saliency of immigration policy and liberal movement in attitudes among Latinos is due to two factors: 1) perceptions of immigration policies being framed in anti-Latino rhetoric, and 2) personal knowledge of the impact of immigration policy on families living in the United States. The political debates surrounding immigration policy reached a heightened pitch during the 2006 election season and have increased in hostility while being described as having an anti-Latino undertone. The June impreMedia/Latino Decisions (LD) poll reveals that Latino voters are conscious of this tense landscape, as 76% of respondents believe that an anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant environment exists today. Another indicator that Latinos (regardless of nativity) are interpreting immigration policies as being directed toward their ethnic group is that illegal immigration was the most commonly cited policy in the Latino National Survey when respondents were asked what the most “important problem facing the Latino community” was. Professor Pedraza has provided evidence that the presence of this anti-immigrant environment leads directly to greater skepticism of government and less political efficacy. The figure below provides the impact of perceiving that there is an anti-immigrant and Hispanic environment on immigration attitudes. Here we see a strong relationship between perceived hostility and immigration policy preferences, as there is a 10 percentage point gap in support for allowing undocumented immigrants to earn access to citizenship status, with much greater support (76%) among those who believe there is an anti-Hispanic/immigrant environment today. 

The final component in this discussion is to assess the impact of personal knowledge of how immigration policies are impacting the lives of undocumented immigrants on immigration attitudes. We see, for example, that Latinos who know someone who is an undocumented immigrant are more likely (79%) to believe that there is an anti-immigrant/Hispanic environment compared to those who do not (71%). Similarly, there is greater support for allowing undocumented immigrants to earn access to citizenship status among those who know someone who is undocumented (77%) than among those who do not (71%).

Finally, we see in the figure below that having personal connections to those most impacted by immigration policies moderates how the Latino electorate views the job President Obama has been doing handling immigration reform. There is a relatively minor difference in approval ratings based on knowing someone who is an undocumented immigrant (51% /46% approval), however knowing someone who has been deported has a marked impact on how Latinos view the job that President Obama has been doing with immigration reform. Here we see that approval for the job that President Obama has been doing handling immigration reform drops to 35% among those who know someone who has been deported, which is 17 points lower than approval among those who do not (52%). This trend strongly suggests that Latinos who have intimate knowledge of the severe consequences associated with the Obama administration’s current approach to immigration are more likely to hold the President accountable for these outcomes.


Over the past year more than 400,000 people were deported by Immigration Customs and Enforcement, and several states have passed controversial immigration laws in line with Arizona’s SB1070. Furthermore, just this week when speaking about potential solutions to immigration, Congressman Mo Brooks (Republican from Alabama) promised that he would do “anything short of shooting” undocumented immigrants. This is just the latest indicator of the growing hostility that has characterized the political climate surround immigration policy over the past several years. As reflected in the data presented in this blog, the Latino population is very conscious of this tension, as a robust 76% of Latino registered voters believe that an anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant environment exists today. Furthermore, a sizable segment of the Latino electorate knows someone who is undocumented and/or someone who has been deported due to their immigration status. The personal relationship Latinos have to state and federal immigration policy helps to explain why there has been a major shift in Latino attitudes toward immigration, and is also impacting Latinos' approval of the job President Obama is doing reforming immigration policy. It will therefore be extremely difficult to engage Latino voters without addressing what is becoming painfully obvious: that for Latinos, immigration is no longer about politics, it's personal.

Gabriel R. Sanchez is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico and Research Director for Latino Decisions.

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