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Finding Solutions on Immigration Turns Out to Be Really Popular

By Mike Lux and Celinda Lake

One of the few things that Democrats and Republicans agree on is the immigration system in this country is badly broken, and in poll after poll for decades now, large majorities of voters support common sense immigration system reforms. George W Bush, John McCain, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, and many other politicians from both parties supported comprehensive reforms. Yet for more than two decades now, immigration has been one of the most vexing issues in American politics.

The fact that we haven’t yet been able to get a comprehensive solution passed a divided Congress is a tragedy for the more than 11 million immigrants who have been here for many years, but because of our broken system still have no path for citizenship, and it is a tragedy for all of us -- friends, families, employers -- who are desperate for some common sense solution.

Republicans have found that nothing riles up their base voters more than attacking Democrats on immigration, so they don't want to fix anything. They certainly don’t want to defuse their biggest mobilizing issue before a presidential election, nor do they want to give President Biden anything that could be construed as a win. Democrats have similarly found that the more they talk about immigration policy, the more it riles up Republican voters. Because Democrats do not have the votes to reform the filibuster, and Republicans can thus always block legislation, there is realistically little that can be done legislatively. So Democrats are incentivized politically for these reasons to avoid the topic.

Given that the violently anti-immigrant Republican Party of this era won’t ever agree to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the pollster Celinda Lake and I began working with the leadership at the American Business Immigration Coalition and our colleague Bob Creamer to look at the polling and come up with a strategy for executive action that the Biden administration could take on immigration that would a) be politically popular; b) motivate key segments of the electorate to vote; and c) not rile up Republican base voters. That combination is a tall order, but we think we have found the formula that works.

Lake Research Partners did a recent survey of likely 2024 voters in seven key swing states (AZ, GA, MI, NC, NV, PA, & WI), with over-samples of White swing voters, Mexican American likely voters, and citizens nationwide with undocumented family members. The poll shows very strong support for expanding work permits for undocumented immigrants (including long-term workers, farm workers, Dreamers, and spouses of U.S. citizens) in these swing states. The proposed policy is favored by two thirds of voters in these states before they hear any messaging, and it is strongly favored by nearly half. Only one quarter are opposed.

This policy demonstrates the potential to both mobilize turnout targets and consolidate key swing audiences, such as Mexican American voters, a critical voting bloc who are not yet consolidated for Biden and Democrats. Voters – including white swing voters – not only strongly support expanding work permits, but report increased enthusiasm for elected officials who support it. The Democratic base, including turnout targets, love the policy.

Eight in 10 Mexican American voters and over eight in 10 Democrats support the policy, with very high intensity. U.S. citizens in mixed status families are essentially unanimously in support, with nearly nine in 10 strongly supportive. Remarkably, white swing voters support the policy at even higher levels than voters overall, and a majority of independents also support it.

Expanding work permits is an issue that can drive both turnout and persuasion. Across the board voters are more likely to vote for a candidate who supports the policy and are more excited to vote in the presidential election with this policy on the table. Even among swing voters, candidates are rewarded, rather than penalized for supporting the policy.

Voters are more likely to vote for a generic candidate who supports expanding work permits, by a margin of +27 points.3 Remarkably, white swing voters and independents both support a pro-work permit candidate by essentially the same margin. Mexican Americans are more likely to vote for such a candidate by an overwhelming +61 points, Democrats by an even larger +72, and mixed status families by a near unanimous +85.

Voters would be more excited to vote in the presidential election if a candidate for president supported expanding work permits, by a margin of +23 points, and again hite swing voters and independents by a similar margin. For Democrats (+54), Mexican Americans (+63), and mixed status families (+74), this policy would substantially increase their excitement in the presidential election, and intensity is very high.

The best messaging on this issue that works for both persuasion and turnout audiences combines emotional appeals with calls for practicality: highlighting both the challenges mixed status families face and the economic benefits to American workers and the economy of legalizing long-term, hardworking immigrants.

  • Voters respond strongly to hearing a personal story about the reality of living in a mixed-status family.

  • Raising the issue of the exploitation of undocumented immigrants – and how that negatively impacts both them and American workers – is effective.

  • Reminding voters, with specifics, of how our workforce depends on undocumented immigrants helps round out the story.

Top Messages Overall:

[PERSONAL STORY] Most people think if you are married to a U.S. citizen you get citizenship, but that isn’t true. Amanda is a U.S. citizen. Her husband Sam is undocumented. Amanda and Sam lived together in the U.S. for over a decade, working and paying taxes, and have children together. But Sam had to leave the country for a family emergency, and now he’s barred from coming back, and Amanda is raising their children alone. These families belong together. [EXPLOITATION] Undocumented immigrants who are living and working among us, contributing to our communities and doing jobs no one else wants to do, are vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking, wage theft, and abuse because they lack legal protection. When we allow greedy employers to exploit undocumented people for cheap labor, it drives down wages for everyone. Giving hardworking people the permits they need to work legally helps all of us economically and it’s the right thing to do. [WORKFORCE] Immigrants are vital to our country’s workforce, filling essential jobs that no one else is willing to do in our farms, factories, hospitals, nursing homes, and more. We need immigrant workers – nearly three quarters of agriculture workers in the U.S. are immigrants – and half of them are undocumented. Without these workers, we can’t produce food, or care for our sick and elderly. We all do better when working people can get the permits they need to live and work here successfully.

An emotional family separation message about children-in-mixed-status families is not as strong as a persuasion message, but is very powerful with Democrats.

Top Message for Democrats:

[MIXED FAMILIES – CHILDREN] Right now, nearly six million children in the U.S. live in households where only one parent has legal status. Some live under the constant threat of their families being separated, others already are. Separating families is wrong, and it harms all of us – tearing our communities apart and leaving behind essential unfilled jobs, spouses with no way of supporting their families, and traumatized children. We need to keep families together and allow hardworking immigrants to get legal work permits.

In the 2012 Obama re-election campaign, Latino and Asian-American voters had very low enthusiasm because deportations had been so high and because Congress never passed immigration reform. When the Obama team created the DACA program, enthusiasm about the election swelled in Democratic constituencies, and resulted in higher turnouts and higher percentages of voters sympathetic to immigrants.

In 2024, the Biden campaign is facing a similar dynamic, and enthusiasm is very low with people of color who care about immigration. The Biden campaign is also facing the fact that key groups including Hispanics are not as solidly behind him as they were for Obama, so this isn’t just a turnout issue, it’s a persuasion issue.

Taking some combination of the policy steps discussed above would be widely popular with voters in general, including White swing voters. Perhaps even more importantly, it would boost enthusiasm for voting with key groups of the electorate, including Mexican-Americans, who are the biggest and most Democratic trending group impacted by immigration.

These immigration policies are a big political winner for Democrats.


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