Hispanic Voters and The Immigration Debate: Right Principles, Wrong Approach

Public Opinion Strategies conducted a set of special focus groups among Hispanic voters in Las Vegas, NV.  Each group was conducted among 12 respondents for three hours, allowing us to use different projective techniques and a much deeper dive into opinions and beliefs than traditional focus groups.  While the groups were conducted in English, they were moderated by a Spanish-speaking discussion leader.

The very word “immigration” puts Hispanic Americans on edge.  They know we’re talking about “them,” and they worry.

When someone of Spanish-speaking descent as we had in our focus groups hears the word “immigration,” they brace for the worst.  As they say …. “immigration means brown people.  ALL brown people.”  If they are white it does not matter who is speaking, Republican or Democrat.  One participant in our group said, “I feel like they are talking to me even though I was born here… People think that because you are Spanish you are not supposed to be here.”

The immigration issue does not necessarily affect our participants – all of our participants were American citizens.  But they say the issue is important because “it reflects on us.”

And the challenge for Republicans is that many of these Hispanic voters believe that Republicans want to close the border.  Participants in our groups point to policies in Arizona as evidence of a targeted attempt to intimidate and harass Hispanics, American or not.  They say they know people who claim to have been “profiled” in Arizona.  And then there are the Arizona Minutemen whom participants in these groups associate with Republicans.  Deciphering the code is not difficult – Republicans don’t want us here.

Democrats are the party of the DREAM Act.  This is what our focus group participants agreed was an opportunity for the next generation.  The code is also not difficult – Democrats want us here.

But, when it comes to immigration reform, the principles they outline themselves sound shockingly … Republican.  Or at least ideas that Republicans could support.  Some of the policies these voters prefer include:

  • Border control
  • Accountability in citizenship, no shortcuts.
  • Learn the language – you’re an American.
  • No criminal background.
  • The residency process needs to be simpler and less expensive.

So when the outline of a Gang of Eight Plan is introduced, they are quite supportive as they believe it is a very reasonable approach.  While some goals of recent Republican efforts might have been on target (border control), the mechanism for implementation may have left Hispanics feeling alienated or humiliated.

We also showed our groups a clip of a speech given recently by Senator Rand Paul introducing his immigration reform plan. Click here to view the clip. For many, it sounded almost “too good to be true.”  They found it more difficult to believe him because it was so far from what they would have expected.  While they were largely on board with his approach to immigration, there are some other lessons from the Senator Paul speech:

  1. The personal stories Senator Paul shares are important.  They feel he wants to do the right thing and he cares.  It personalizes the issue.
  2. When we talk about immigration, we need to talk about ALL races, not just Mexicans.
  3. Words need to be followed with a plan of action.
  4. Be careful on pushing the taxpayer line.  While citizenship, in fact, will create a new generation of taxpayers, it reminded these Hispanic voters that Republicans care more about money than they do about people.
  5. Emphasize that it’s the right thing to do.  They want to feel that your conviction comes from principle and a core as opposed to a more transparent attempt to secure votes.

Handling the immigration debate properly is essential to opening the door for Republicans in the Hispanic community.  It says a lot about the value we place on Hispanic Americans.  After discussion and watching the speech, some of these Hispanic voters say “Republicans are changing and will work to help” and “they are looking out for the future of the country.”  That’s a much better place for us to be.

Click here to see other posts in this series.

Public Opinion Strategies