The Context of Immigration Policy in New Mexico Reflects National Trends

The Latino electorate continues to be one of the most intriguing story lines of the 2012 election cycle, with the role of immigration policy in Latino voting behavior dominating discussions of the Latino vote in this critical election. Here at Latino Decisions we have provided in-depth analysis of this relationship, finding that immigration policy is salient to Latinos across key battleground states, and key to Latino enthusiasm levels. The context that immigration has provided to the election was captured well by President Obama who recently acknowledged that if he were to win re-election it would largely be due to the GOP alienating the Latino community. This statement by the President seems to reflect the perceptions of the Latino community, as our latest weekly tracker poll shows that while 37% of Latino voters believe that if President Obama is re-elected it will make no difference regarding comprehensive immigration reform being passed, 51% believe that the prospects for reform will get worse if Romney were to be elected.

It is therefore clear that immigration will help decide the election outcome next week, but what is less clear is why immigration policy has become the most critical issue for many Latino voters across the country who themselves are removed from the immigration experience? The shift in Latino attitudes toward immigration policy has been rather striking, as many studies of Latino political behavior conducted in the 1990’s noted that Latino public opinions toward immigration were rather divided. 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.

To shed some light on this question I turn my attention to the state of New Mexico. This is an interesting state to explore, as New Mexico has somewhat of a unique history and demography that colors the way Hispanic voters approach the issue of immigration. As reflected in the figure below, the foreign-born population in New Mexico is smaller than the national average, which means that Hispanics in New Mexico are less likely to be immigrants than in other southwestern states. However, it is important to note that there have been significant increases in the foreign-born population in New Mexico overall and in the city of Albuquerque. In fact, the percentage of foreign-born New Mexicans in Albuquerque has more than doubled since 1990.

The demographic shifts in the state have had a major impact in the interactions of US born Hispanics and more recently arriving Latino immigrants. In the recent America’s Voice/Latino Decisions survey of Hispanic voters in New Mexico we asked about the relationships Hispanic voters have with the undocumented population. Somewhat surprisingly, nearly 60% of Hispanic voters in New Mexico indicated that they know someone who is undocumented personally, either a friend, family member, or co-worker. Although lower than percentages in neighboring Colorado (69%) or Arizona (66%), the 60% in New Mexico was higher than many observers (myself included) of New Mexican politics anticipated. As I have noted in earlier posts regarding this issue, the personal connection Latino voters have to immigrants has major implications for how Latino voters view immigration policy, as well as President Obama.

This personal connection to the immigrant community driven by changes in demography could very well influence Hispanic attitudes toward immigration policy in New Mexico. However, scholars of racial and ethnic politics have often found that interactions can often lead to increased competition and hostility among populations. The Latino National Survey (2006) provides an opportunity to explore this possibility specific to New Mexico, as there was a question asked only of respondents in New Mexico regarding the relationship between native-born Hispanos and more recent immigrants. The fact that this question was posed only to respondents in New Mexico was just as telling as the 51.5% of respondents who indicated that the relationships were “generally negative”.

Much has changed since 2006 however. The GOP has made immigration policy a priority and advocated for policies that many Latinos view to be anti-Latino in nature. 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. Furthermore, a recent blog post by Joseph Ura and Francisco Pedraza notes that a robust 60% of Latino voters in battleground states felt that if Arizona’s controversial SB1070 law were to be upheld it would contribute to this “anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic environment in America.”

New Mexico has also seen immigration policy become a major topic of political debate in recent years with the election of Governor Susana Martinez, who has made  immigration related issues the focus of her first term in office. In fact, Martinez made immediate headlines for her aggressive approach to immigration policy, which included an executive order issued on her first day in office that requires state law enforcement officials to verify the citizenship status of individuals arrested, and several failed efforts to repeal a law allowing undocumented immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses in the state.

So Where do Hispanic Voters in New Mexico Stand on Immigration Now?

Fortunately the recent America’s Voice/Latino Decisions survey of Hispanic voters in New Mexico provides the opportunity to explore whether the changing demography and political climate have had any influence on Hispanic attitudes toward immigration policy. As reflected in the figures below, immigration policy is clearly important to Hispanic voters in the state of New Mexico, as immigration trails only the economy as the “most important issue facing the Hispanic community” according to respondents in the poll. Furthermore, a combined 79% of Hispanic voters in New Mexico indicate that immigration policy was important to their vote in a follow up question.

Among other topics, the survey queried Hispanic voters about the driver’s license issue that has become a lightning rod in many state legislative races this cycle in anticipation of a state legislative session that will once again focus on the issue.  As reflected in the figure below, an overwhelming 70% of Hispanic voters in New Mexico indicate that they prefer that undocumented immigrants be provided the opportunity to apply for a driver’s license that has some added restrictions compared to a much smaller 21% who support not allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for a license.

Given the major importance the Hispanic electorate plays in New Mexico, it will be difficult for the Governor to pass this repeal of driver’s licenses when the overwhelming majority of Hispanic voters support a compromise bill. What is really intriguing is that the Governor’s immigration agenda may have heightened the salience of immigration among Hispanic voters in New Mexico, which may have implications for electoral politics in the state well after the driver’s license issue is settled.

Gabriel R. Sanchez is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico and Research Director for Latino Decisions who has published several articles focused on Hispanic political attitudes in New Mexico.

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