No issue has tied Republican candidates into knots like immigration, where GOP 2016 hopefuls are divided both on whether to offer undocumented immigrants legal status and whether to embrace or criticize legal immigration. According to a new poll from Pew Research Center, Republican voters are struggling with the same questions in ways that separate them from the rest of the electorate.
In perhaps the most striking finding, some 63% of Republican voters view immigrants of all stripes as a “burden” who generally compete for jobs, housing, and health care. That’s almost a mirror image of Democrats, 62% of whom agreed with a statement that immigrants “strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents,” and independents, 57% of whom agreed immigrants “strengthen” America overall.
Republicans presidential candidates were broadly supportive of legal immigration in 2012 even as they called for tougher crackdowns on undocumented immigrants, but 2016 is another story. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, has called for a 25% reduction in legal immigration while Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has expressed concern that immigration levels may be depressing wages. On the other hand, candidates like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, all of whom were raised in immigrant households, have called for policies to make it easier to immigrate into the United States.
Pew’s numbers show the potential for an ugly fight on the issue, especially in a crowded GOP field where candidates will find it hard to stand out with conservatives. 42% of Republican respondents said they wanted legal immigration decreased versus 28% of independents and 27% of Democrats.
The bigger political fight, however, has long been how to address the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. Here Pew found majority support – even among GOP voters – for letting the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in America to remain in the country legally if they meet certain requirements.
Per Pew, 56% of Republicans support a path to legal status, versus 80% of Democrats and 76% of independents. Republicans are less excited about the idea, however – a 58% majority see legal status as a “reward for doing something wrong” versus just 23% of Democrats and 33% of independents who view it that way. A whopping 86% of Hispanic respondents support legalization, highlighting the challenges Republicans face going forward in diverse swing states like Florida, Nevada, and Colorado.
While the main debate has been over whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay at all, candidates are increasingly engaged in a separate fight over whether a path to legal status short of citizenship might be a better compromise.
Pew tested this distinction and found Republican voters split between 25% who support citizenship and 28% who prefer permanent residency. Democrats favored citizenship by a 48-27 margin and independents by a 48-25 margin.
Bush, who has gone back and forth on his stance on citizenship, has argued legal status without citizenship strikes the right balance. Rubio co-sponsored a Senate bill that wold have provided a path to citizenship and still supports eventually undocumented migrants to eventually apply for citizenship even as he’s backed away from his old legislation in favor of passing border enforcement measures first. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Walker have abandoned prior calls for citizenship in recent months. Cruz has indicated he may be open to legal status after addressing border security and legal immigration first, but has ruled out citizenship.
Sensing a way to differentiate herself from more pro-immigration Republicans, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has argued that citizenship is an absolutely necessity in any immigration reform package. “When they talk about ‘legal status,’ that is code for second-class status,” she said at an event in Las Vegas last month.
To the extent Republicans have an opportunity to make inroads on immigration issues, it may lie in a general dissatisfaction with Obama’s immigration policy. Only 37% approve of his record on the issue, which includes a broad measure – now stalled in the courts – to temporarily halt deportations for millions of undocumented immigrants via executive order. 48% of Hispanic respondents disapproved of his immigration performance versus just 44% who said they approved.
But before the GOP can effectively attack Democrats in 2016, they have to figure out their own position. Mirroring the sharp divisions in the primary field, Republicans reported to Pew they’re unhappy with how their party has handled the topic: only 34% of Republicans and Republican-leaning respondents approved of the GOP’s work on immigration issues versus 59% who said it was not doing a good job. By contrast Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents were more united, with 51% giving high marks to the party on immigration versus 43% who disapproved.