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How Immigration Policy Motivates Voters


Congress has less than three weeks to come up with an immigration solution before the Trump administration says it is going to revoke DACA, the the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. NPR's Asma Khalid reports on how an immigration bill, or a lack of one, might be motivating voters in an election year.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Immigration is part of the Democratic Party's brand, and so as Mark Hugo Lopez with the Pew Research Center points out, there was this assumption in the 2016 election that Donald Trump's unfriendly immigration rhetoric would motivate Democrats.

MARK HUGO LOPEZ: One of the things that many analysts had pointed to is that Donald Trump's comments about immigrants, particularly Mexican immigrants, might motivate Latino voters to turn out in record numbers.

KHALID: That did not exactly happen. For one thing, the top issue for Latino voters was the economy, and turnout among Latinos in 2016 actually declined compared to 2012. OK. So maybe insults alone do not turn out voters, but, Lopez told me, policy changes might. He points to when the DACA program was first introduced, the summer before President Obama's re-election.

LOPEZ: Obama, in 2012, was under this cloud of being a deporter-in-chief. At least, many Latino leaders had described him as such. So when he does DACA, many analysts say that that was just enough the motivator to get many Hispanics who were perhaps on the fence about voting to vote.

KHALID: But even if there was a bump, it was a minor bump. One analyst told me historically we've seen Latinos mobilize against something more than for something. So for example, we saw mass mobilization in 2006 when some anti-immigration legislation was introduced. The thing is, immigration in the abstract actually seems to matter more to Republicans. The exit polls from 2016 show that among voters who said the most important issue facing the country was immigration, they heavily tilted toward Trump, by pretty much 2 to 1. And that's not surprising to Whit Ayres. He's a GOP pollster who's written about immigration and his party.

WHIT AYRES: For opponents of immigration, the issue taps into fears of economic pressures that have so damaged the blue collar, middle class, as well as fears that we're losing our culture, that a country that's spoken English since its founding is becoming bilingual.

KHALID: That cultural anxiety should not be underestimated. John Sides, a professor at George Washington University, did a survey after the 2016 election where he interviewed the same voters he had spoken to in 2012.

JOHN SIDES: So we knew what they said about immigration then and we knew how they voted in 2012.

KHALID: And he found that among white voters, there was a correlation over time between their vote and how they felt about a couple of key things.

SIDES: And those things had to do with their views of race, and their views of immigration and their views of Muslims.

KHALID: Immigration is potent, politically. Not so much standing alone, but symbolic of bigger emotional issues that motivate the GOP's base. Of course, the big difference between Donald Trump's election and the midterms is that it's a very different political landscape. This November, elections will be held in discrete districts and states. In key suburban swing districts, immigration may not be as much of a lightning rod. And so analysts say Republicans could benefit in those areas by just getting any immigration solution, even a short-term DACA fix. Here's Lanae Erickson Hatalsky with the think tank Third Way.

LANAE ERICKSON HATALSKY: Most voters don't list immigration as their No. 1 voting issue. So I think if Trump ends up signing a deal, that probably defuses the issue politically, in general.

KHALID: But if there is no deal and those 700,000 people with DACA lose their protection from deportation, well, then that might actually motivate Democrats.

Asma Khalid, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.