Immigration Issues Complicate Candidates’ Campaigns

June 2, 2022 by Reece Nations
Immigration Issues Complicate Candidates’ Campaigns
Mexican National Guards stand watch over the Suchiate River where locals transport cargo and ferry people between Mexico and Guatemala, near Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, a location popular for Central American migrants to cross from Guatemala to Mexico. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte, File)

SAN ANTONIO — As election season heats up, campaign messaging centered around immigration policy is still a hot-button issue for both parties.

Candidates skate a fine line with how they choose to convey their stances. Each year, political hopefuls are tasked with communicating their political philosophies to voters in a way that not only sets them apart from candidates across the aisle but also from members of their own party.

So far this year, southwest land border encounters by Customs and Border Patrol have consistently surpassed the past three years’ monthly totals, according to CBP data. 

Border policy is an issue that Republicans constantly hammer Democrats on, and appearing soft on immigration during primary campaigns amounts to “death” for candidates hoping to win over conservative majorities, Matthew Wilson, associate professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, told The Well News.

Republicans tend to share uniform views on immigration policy, he said. They consistently emphasize strengthening border security, bringing order to the southern border, and combating drug and human trafficking. Meanwhile, Wilson said Democrats are less consistent about their vision for liberalized border policy. 

“I think in this electoral cycle, there’s no way that immigration becomes a winning issue for Democrats,” Wilson said. “The only question is minimizing the damage, and the federal courts actually did the Democrats a tremendous favor by saying that President Biden could not get rid of Title 42.”

Essentially, Wilson said, the defeat of Title 42’s planned revocation was the best outcome from a political standpoint for the Biden administration because it allows them to tell the “activist base” that they were at least trying to liberalize immigration policy. Attempting to navigate a massive surge of migrants at the southern border would have been disastrous for Democratic reelection campaigns, so the defeat may ultimately be a boon for liberal candidates.

Members of Biden’s own party were reluctant to do away with the public health order without first producing a comprehensive immigration plan, The Well News previously reported.

However, the administration’s previous attempt to defend Title 42’s continued usage in court in January left the party’s more progressive factions dissatisfied as well. Given that Democrats were largely disjointed in their approach to immigration policy, Wilson said their winning issues are more likely to be abortion, gun control and student debt relief.

A vast majority — around 80% — support keeping abortion legal in some or all circumstances, according to Gallup polling data. Further, 52% of Gallup survey respondents supported stricter laws covering the sale of firearms. 

Similarly, polling data collected by Morning Consult and Politico found that 64% of respondents supported some form of student loan forgiveness. That same poll also found that more people trusted Republicans over Democrats to handle issues related to immigration by a margin of 47% to 36%.

“Republicans have had some electoral success on the immigration issue,” Wilson told The Well News. “But it’s a fine line to walk and Republicans have at times overplayed their hand.”

Wilson pointed to the 1990s-era California GOP that became increasingly perceived as an “anti-Latino” party because of its tough stance on immigration. While Republicans used to be competitive in the state, they now struggle to hold ground in California’s metropolitan areas.

But the immigration issue is more intricate than just Republicans holding hardline stances in contrast to Democrats’ softer approach, he said. Although Hispanic populations have largely voted for Democrats in past years, Republicans are gaining ground.

“Hispanic public opinion on immigration is much more complex and nuanced than is often portrayed,” Wilson said. “Hispanics are not uniformly in support of liberalized immigration policy. In fact, many of them live in communities along the border that are really hurt by these illegal immigration flows. And so, it is not necessarily the case that pushing for more liberal immigration policy is a huge vote winner among Hispanic communities.”

While this is largely true to some degree for Hispanics across the country, it’s especially true for Hispanics who live near the border because they feel the complexity of the issue in a much more direct and personal way than others may, he said. Consequently, conservative candidates have looked to appeal to these constituencies to edge out Democrats in close battleground elections.

Polling data reflects this shift in party identification status for Hispanics. In 2016, 62% of Hispanic Americans either leaned towards Democrats or were firmly on their side, but that percentage had dropped to 56% by 2021, according to Gallup.

While the percentage of Republican or Republican-leaning Hispanic voters hovered around 31% between 2011 and 2014, the same percentage of Hispanic voters supported Republicans in 2021 as they did in 2016 at 26%.

“I think that’s why — to the surprise of many — [former President] Donald Trump actually did better in 2020 among Latino voters than he had done in 2016, despite some pretty strong anti-immigration rhetoric,” Wilson told The Well News.

Reece can be reached at [email protected] and https://twitter.com/ReeceNWrites

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