Michael Smolens: Will Joe Biden lean in on pro-immigrant message?
Here’s something you don’t hear in American politics every day: A pro-immigrant message could be a winning strategy in a presidential election.
That may seem counterintuitive given immigration has been a lightning-rod issue for some time, even more so since President Donald Trump made tough action, particularly on illegal immigration, central to his 2016 campaign and first term in the White House.
But a recent poll shows his immigration policies are highly unpopular among “persuadable” voters in swing states. Conversely, measures protecting immigrants in the workplace and creating a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants have overwhelming support.
The survey, conducted for the National Immigration Law Center’s Immigrant Justice Fund, found that by projecting this message on former Vice President Joe Biden, his favorability among these voters rose 15 percentage points, while his unfavorable rating dropped by 25 points.
Some things worth noting about the poll: The NILC Immigrant Justice Fund, as its name suggests, pursues policies to improve the lives of low-income immigrants in the U.S. The poll was conducted by ALG Research, a nationwide firm that counts dozens of Democratic politicians among its clients, including Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
The poll surveyed 600 voters who were not definitively supporting Trump or Biden (thus considered persuadable) within an overall sample of 800 likely voters in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The survey oversampled Black and Latino voters in order, according to Politico, “to study them more closely.”
The NILC Immigrant Justice Fund isn’t simply trying to make a point; the organization is using the poll to guide an independent campaign that focuses on immigration and is aimed at undecided voters in key states.
“Democrats are afraid to lean in” on immigration policy during elections, Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the law center, told Politico. “In fact, they don’t have a choice with Trump.”
The organization, which focuses on policy and advocacy, views the stakes as so high that this will be its first campaign in a presidential election year. The operation may spend up to $3 million, which seems small in terms of a national campaign, but it will focus on digital media targeting specific voters in swing states.
The poll shows various pro-immigrant policies are widely supported by persuadable voters. Conversely, Trump’s positions and actions on immigration are strongly opposed.
For instance, 68% support a path to citizenship while 70% back ending the president’s policy of separating families at the border.
Meanwhile, 77% favor stronger workplace protections for immigrants and 60% want to end construction of Trump’s border wall and channel the money into making health care more affordable, improving education and creating jobs.
When the poll framed these positions as coming from Biden, his net favorable rating among persuadable voters grew by 40%. That’s a huge swing from a minus 38% net favorable — 27% favorable and 65% unfavorable — to plus 2% — 42% favorable and 40% unfavorable.
“This improvement in Biden’s favorable rating is critically important, because given Biden’s current lead in the battleground states, consolidating his soft supporters is his most important objective,” according to ALG Research.
There are broader signs that support for immigration may be increasing. A Gallup poll released in early July showed that, for the first time since it began surveying on this trend, there are more Americans who prefer an increase in immigration than those who favor a decrease.
Thirty-four percent back an increase, which is the highest support for expanding immigration ever registered by the poll. That’s up from 27% a year ago.
The percentage backing a decrease hit a new low of 28%. Thirty-six percent said immigration should stay at its present level.
Like most surveys on the politically charged topic, the poll revealed a substantial split, with Democrats and independents increasingly supportive of more immigration while the percentage of Republicans in that camp is shrinking.
If there’s a shift in public attitude in favor of immigration and assisting unauthorized immigrants, that doesn’t seem to have affected Trump’s policies.
Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which provides temporary legal status to young people who were brought into the country illegally as children.
The Supreme Court ruled he had the power to end it, but didn’t do it legally. Trump said he would still try to scuttle it. So far, his administration has said it will reject new applicants and reduce the renewal period for current recipients from two years to one.
The revised policy also prohibits DACA recipients from visiting their home countries unless there are “exceptional circumstances.”
In something of a parallel, Trump tried to block foreign college students from staying in the country if they were taking only online courses, which is all most schools are offering during the coronavirus pandemic.
After lawsuits by various universities, Trump scaled back his policy to banning new foreign students who take only online classes.
He has not relented in building the border wall and, according to reports, has accelerated construction during the pandemic.
On its face, it seems Biden would be the more appealing choice for Latino voters. Though his Latino outreach during the primaries was widely viewed as weak, his campaign has since bolstered that effort, including the hiring of Latino political strategists and field staff.
But as part of President Barack Obama’s administration, he has had to answer for Obama’s high number of deportations — something Biden earlier this year called a “big mistake.”
The former vice president has pledged to undo many of Trump’s immigration policies. He supports a path to citizenship and would continue DACA, a program created through executive action by Obama.
But it remains to be seen whether his positions and the polls foreshadow a strong pro-immigrant message in his campaign.
Michael Smolens is a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.