Economy, Not Immigration, Is Key Issue for Latinos in 2012

Both the far left and right are using the immigration issue as a "cat's paw" to move the political sympathies of the nation's growing Latino minority.

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This week the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments as to the constitutionality of Arizona's landmark law intended to help control illegal immigration.

The Obama administration contends the law should be thrown out, as immigration control is a federal responsibility about which the state has no say or role. Proponents of the Arizona law say the state is well within its rights to help the federal government enforce the laws on the books and that it is not nearly as draconian as its opponents suggest.

All this takes place at a time when the issue of illegal immigration has been cooling down. Despite its opposition to the Arizona law, the Obama administration has deported what it claims to be a record number of illegals, including drug traffickers and human smugglers. The struggling economy has also had an effect. The lack of available jobs has caused a lot of people to return home and means that fewer are trying to enter the United States, at least that's what a new report from the Pew Hispanic Center says.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

"The largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States has come to a standstill," the report says. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it is estimated that over the last five years the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico living in the United States fell by 900,000, from 7 million to 6.1 million. At the same time, the number of legal Mexican immigrants residing in the United States increased slightly from 5.6 million to 5.8 million.

Part of the reason the issue still resonates is that, to fringe elements in both parties, it remains important.

On the left there are those who see the country's immigration policy as a civil rights issue, a view the president appears at times to share, and they regard any attempts to enforce the existing laws or to restrict the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States as racist. On the right are those who believe that anything short of "round them up and send them home" is a de facto amnesty that rewards law breakers and undermines our national integrity.

[ Read the U.S. News debate: Is Arizona's SB 1070 Immigration Law Constitutional?]

Both sides are using the immigration issue as a "cat's paw" to move the political sympathies of the nation's growing Latino minority, with each believing it is critical to determining how they will vote in the next election.

This reflects a lack of understanding about how the Latino voters are. They are, first and foremost, not monolithic in their beliefs, attitudes, or partisan affiliations. Voters of Cuban extraction in Florida, for example, do not hold the same views as second-generation Mexican-Americans in Texas. Puerto Ricans in New York do not think the same way on everything as El Salvadorans living in northern Virginia. Yet for most of them, immigration reform is probably far down the list of issues they care about the most.

Resurgent Republic just released a study based on focus group data that addresses this very point. Talking with independent Latinos who all voted for Barack Obama in 2008 but are undecided about how the will vote in 2012, they found some very interesting things—like the fact that these voters are "primarily concerned about the direction of the economy and finding quality jobs."

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

"These qualitative findings further dispel the myth of the Hispanic community being a monolithic voting bloc," the report said. "The top priority for both the Spanish-preferred and the English-Bilingual respondents is the direction of the economy and improving their own financial security. The Spanish-preferred voters also hold a more unfavorable impression of the Republican brand. The English-Bilingual respondents share views similar to mainstream, middle-class swing voters interviewed by Resurgent Republic in separate focus groups. They are more likely to view their Hispanic culture as ethnicity, not immigrant status, and favor enforcement as part of immigration reform."

Additional key findings include:

  • The top priority of Hispanic swing voters is the economy and these voters talk about a variety of financial ills in personal terms.
  • While the Republican brand is viewed unfavorably among these Hispanics, President Obama's image is tarnished due to an anemic economy and failure to pass immigration reform.
  • These voters believe the nation's immigration laws should reflect values of opportunity, hard work, and allow immigrants to achieve the American Dream.
  • These voters are open to conservative education reforms, like school choice, greater accountability and increased parental involvement, but also favor measures like the DREAM Act [a pathway to conditional permanent residency for certain illegal aliens who came to the United States as minors and who lived in the country continuously for at least five years].

So, while immigration-related issues are certainly on the minds of these voters, it is not the first thing on the list, which argues against the idea that they see a compelling need for so-called comprehensive reform. It is important to note that those Latinos who are in the United States legally, who played by the rules as it were, are in many cases at least equally skeptical as others of giving a "free ride" to those who are here illegally.

[ Vote: Should Mitt Romney Endorse Marco Rubio's Immigration Plan?]

Rather than pursue comprehensive reform, which is a loser for both parties, the better approach may be to concentrate efforts on the need to secure the border first and, only after that is done, to start talking about ways to deal with the illegals still in the United States. By trying to take on the whole enchilada in one bite, President Obama risks alienating those who sees such an approach as a backdoor amnesty while the Republican candidate, who at this point is most likely to be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, runs the risk of being portrayed in an unfavorable light among Latinos who might otherwise approve of his agenda to get the American economy moving again.