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The Elusive Immigration Vote

Author: Toni Johnson
January 23, 2008

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Immigration has been one of the hottest topics in U.S. politics in recent years. But while it remains an important issue (Miami Herald) in the 2008 presidential race, there are already indications it may not be a defining one. A recent opinion survey showed voters evenly split over which party they think is better on the issue. To date, the young election season has provided few conclusive answers about which candidates voters think would best handle immigration reform, including dealing with the estimated twelve million illegal immigrants living in the United States. February 5 may provide a clearer sense of immigration’s role as a swing issue when more than twenty states—including border states California, Arizona, and New Mexico—hold party nominating elections.

Republican Mitt Romney, who won the GOP Nevada caucus by a wide margin, favors a get-tough policy that includes increased deportation of illegal immigrants. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who backs a path-to-citizenship approach combined with tougher border surveillance, finished third in Nevada behind Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), another illegal immigration hard-liner. GOP voters in Nevada placed immigration just behind the economy in importance, a CNN poll found. In South Carolina, however, McCain performed strongly among voters who said they prefer the deportation route (CNN) and attracted large portions of voters who support a more moderate approach, edging out Republican Mike Huckabee for the win.

Romney also scored well in Michigan’s primary among voters concerned about immigration (AP), according to exit polls. But McCain’s wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina demonstrate “his immigration record is not the insurmountable obstacle it appeared to be,” writes Duncan Currie in the Weekly Standard.

Hispanic voters comprised 8 percent of Republican voters in Nevada compared to 15 percent of Democratic voters (CNN), many of whom went for Nevada caucus winner Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY). If Nevada proves to be a trend for Hispanic voters, Clinton could get a boost over chief rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), but it is unclear how the GOP races will play out. Like McCain, both leading Democratic candidates voted for a recent immigration reform bill that would have included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

The country’s economic downturn, now the prevailing issue in the presidential campaign, has added fuel to the immigration debate. Fred Siegel, a contributing editor to the journal of the Manhattan Institute, a U.S.-based think tank, writes that for many voters immigration is a “proxy for globalization.” Princeton economist Alan S. Blinder calls worries over perceived international economic threats a “stop the world” syndrome and says rather than blame globalization (IHT) for job loss and wage inequalities, Americans should be looking at domestic factors like “the failures of public policy.” With anti-immigration activism growing across the country, local communities are taking action to police immigration status in the absence of federal reform, which worries ethnic rights advocates.

Conservative voices, including CFR’s Michael Gerson and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, are concerned that Republicans are hurting the party by alienating Hispanics with their hard line against illegal immigrants. A recent report from the Pew Hispanic Center shows Hispanics largely oppose (PDF) some of the proposed enforcement measures including workplace raids and citizenship requirements for driver’s licenses. Among the 1.2 million green card holders (WSJ) that applied for U.S. citizenship last year, the vast majority are Hispanic. The huge jump in citizen applications is in part attributed to high interest in participating in the 2008 election.

Democrats are eyeing gains from Hispanic voters, but even if they lean toward the party, the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson warns that Democratic candidates who don’t address the issue adequately could alienate other voters (RealClearPolitics). A Rasmussen Reports poll shows immigration to be an important issue among South Carolina Democrats, who will hold their own primary January 26.

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