Texas Immigration Politics: Enforcement First, Outreach Later?

Earlier this week a bipartisan group of eight senators announced their preliminary plans for comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) legislation. Neither senator from Texas is among the coalition of legislators leading the effort to change the broken system currently in place. Senator Cornyn contends that border security must precede any other immigration reforms. Senator Cruz called the earned citizenship provisions “profoundly unfair”, and asserted that serious immigration policy must begin with secure borders, he suggests tripling existing border control efforts.

To be fair, the proposed policy actually does address border security, calling for all the resources Border Patrol needs to “apprehend every unauthorized entrant”. The reason the new proposal is comprehensive is because it deals with more than one element of immigration policy; including border control and the legal status of millions of unauthorized immigrants already residing, working, and going to school in the United States.

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Latino voters in Texas, like voters across the country, perceive enforcement-first positions as political maneuvering. The illustration above shows results from a November 2011 Univision/Latino Decisions survey. We found 63% of Texas Latino voters think politicians calling for secure borders as a prerequisite (to other immigration policy changes) are intent on blocking other elements to immigration reform. Only 24% believe politicians are legitimately concerned with border control.

Earned Partisanship: Immigration Pathway to the Latino Vote

By definition Latino voters are American citizens, but they remain close to the immigrant experience and immigrants themselves. The impreMedia/Latino Decisions Election Eve Poll found 58% of the Texas Latino electorate personally knows someone who is an undocumented immigrant. In fact, immigration ranked at the top of the hierarchy of their policy priorities, second only to the economy; with 34% of Texas Latino voters citing immigration as the most important issue facing the Latino community. Because immigration is so personal, policy details and tone can have a significant impact on Latino vote choices, and perceptions of candidates and parties. Last November’s presidential election is a prime example.

President Obama’s deferred action decision made 59% of Texas Latino voters more enthusiastic about voting for him, while 55% became less enthusiastic about Mitt Romney due to his self-deportation remarks. President Obama wound up with 70% of the Texas Latino vote to Romney’s 29%.

The Texas senators are out of step not only with their Latino constituents, but also, with many in their party seeking both comprehensive immigration reform and a better relationship with the burgeoning Latino electorate. When Senator John McCain was asked what brought him and other Republicans to take initiative on this issue, he answered emphatically, “Elections. Elections. We are losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. We realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a preeminent issue with those citizens.” McCain is right. In taking contrary positions on CIR, the larger Texas Republican Party is leaving votes in the table (and their timing could not be worse, Democrats recently announced a well-funded strategy to turn Texas blue, a topic for a future post.).

The majority of Latinos in Texas identify as Democrats (53%), but a mere 15% are self-identified Republicans. It is entirely possible for the GOP to move some of those independents and “don’t knows” into their column.

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If Republicans take a leadership role in advancing comprehensive immigration reform, inclusive of a path to citizenship, 36% of Texas Latino voters would be more likely to vote for Republican candidates. A small share (11%) would be less inclined to support the party, and there would be no impact on 48% of the state’s Latino electorate. Among Obama voters, 33% said they would be more likely to vote Republican under these conditions. Only 4% of Romney’s voters said they would have been less likely to vote for him. The political payoff could be huge.

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Here is what the Texas Republican vote could have looked like in 2012:

Potential Republican Latino Vote in Texas
  29% Voted Romney
+23% (+33% of Obama’s 70% vote if GOP CIR)
-1% (- 4% of Romney’s 29% vote if GOP CIR)
  51% Total Latino Vote Share in Texas

 

Our Election Eve Poll shows the Republican party could have won 51% of the Latino vote had they advanced CIR, inclusive of earned citizenship. Think about that for a moment in light of the current and projected state demography. If the Republican party in Texas managed to capture half of the state’s Latino electorate, there would be no discussion about Texas turning any color other than bright-hot-red.

At this point in our state and national politics, there is little upside to keeping immigration policy at status quo and alienating Latino voters. The national bi-partisan effort to enact CIR, spearheaded by one of the Tea Party’s biggest success stories (Florida Senator Marco Rubio), presents a huge opportunity for Texas Republicans at all ranks to build bridges with Latino constituencies and become a model for party outreach in the post-SB1070 era.

Sylvia Manzano is a senior analyst at Latino Decisions.

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