Immigration divide sharpens, poll shows; needed legislation stalls

Of all the big issues that divide the country’s two major political parties — abortion, gay rights, gun regulation, perceptions of discrimination, beliefs about the role of government — immigration stands out for the breadth of the divide, the length of the policy stalemate it has engendered and the force with which it has driven political debate in the Trump era.

A new poll done by the YouGov organization for the Los Angeles Times highlights that divide and sheds light on why it’s so difficult for Congress to agree to change how the U.S. handles immigration, even though both parties broadly agree that the current system does not work.

That stalemate manifested itself again in the closing days of the current congressional session as a bipartisan group of senators conceded that they could not get enough support to move ahead with a limited package of immigration reforms. In the new Congress, with Republicans taking control of the House, the prospects for passage of any immigration legislation will dim further.

House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield), seeking to bolster his support among conservatives, has threatened to start impeachment proceedings against Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, whose department includes the nation’s immigration enforcement agencies, but McCarthy has not proposed legislation to solve the system’s problems.

Culture, not economics, drives debate

Attitudes toward immigrants were among the strongest predictors of who voted for former President Trump in each of the elections in which he ran. That started early: In the 2016 Republican primaries, voters who favored making immigration more difficult were significantly more likely to support Trump than his GOP rivals.

General election voters who switched from supporting President Obama in 2012 to supporting Trump four years later — a small but crucial group whose votes helped deliver Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to Trump in 2016 — were especially likely to favor tougher immigration rules, according to a detailed analysis by the nonpartisan Voter Study Group.

The new LA Times/YouGov poll, which we released last week, underscores how that divide has persisted and continues to shape U.S. policy and politics.

Roughly three in 10 adult Americans believe that immigration makes the country worse off, the poll found. A slightly larger group, 35%, believes immigration makes the country better off, and the remaining third say they either don’t know or don’t think immigration makes much difference.

The group that says immigration makes the U.S. worse off overwhelmingly backed Trump. Among those who voted in 2020, 77% went for Trump compared to 21% for Biden. Those who say that immigration makes the country better off were similarly one-sided in their support for Biden. (Those who said they don’t know what impact immigration has or don’t think it makes much difference were notable for their disengagement — almost half said they didn’t vote in 2020).

Economic concerns are not necessarily the big driver of the opposition to immigration. Asked if unauthorized immigrants take jobs Americans want, those who say immigration makes the country worse off split almost evenly: 43% said yes, 39% said no, and 18% weren’t sure. A large majority, 60%, of those who say immigration makes the country better say unauthorized immigrants take jobs other Americans don’t want.

Instead of a debate driven primarily by economic concerns, feelings about immigration are tied closely to the issues of identity and culture that have driven partisanship in the Trump era.

Other research has shown that immigration-related issues sit at or near the top of the list of what drives people’s votes. The Nationscape research project led by UCLA political scientists Lynn Vavreck and Chris Tausanovitch, for example, surveyed nearly half a million Americans from mid-2019 through the end of Trump’s presidency and found that only attitudes toward impeaching Trump out-ranked immigration issues when they tested what drove voters’ choices.

The new LA Times/YouGov poll provides further evidence of how the partisan divide shapes attitudes toward immigration.

On DACA, for example: Biden voters, 78%-11%, support continuing the program, which gives the right to live and work legally in the U.S to some 610,000 young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children. Trump voters, 58%-24%, say the program should be ended.

Similarly, roughly 70% of Biden voters say that people currently living in the U.S. without legal authorization should be allowed to stay; 75% of Trump voters say they should be required to leave.

Asked what they believe would happen in agriculture if the U.S. admitted fewer immigrants, Democrats predicted that American workers would take fewer than half the jobs immigrant laborers currently fill; Republicans said American workers would take more than half. About four in 10 poll respondents who identified themselves as “strong Republicans” said they thought American workers would fill all or most of those jobs.

Some immigration issues buck the partisan trend — majorities across party lines, for example, say the U.S. should not give preferences based on what part of the world immigrants come from, the poll found.

On most issues, however, partisanship shows up as the preeminent divide.

That deep partisan split didn’t used to exist. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which President Reagan signed into law in a ceremony at the Statue of Liberty, gave legal status to some 2.7 million immigrants who had been living in the country without authorization. The bill passed the Senate with 63 votes, including 34 Democrats and 29 Republicans.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, however, views on immigration started to become more polarized as advocates of immigration restriction gained strength in the GOP.

For a couple of decades, the party’s leaders, including President George W. Bush and Republican presidential nominees John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, resisted that shift. Trump, by contrast, seized on the issue and successfully used it to defeat the party establishment.

The Trump presidency rapidly widened the partisan gap on immigration: Democrats, in reaction against him, shifted their views and became more favorable toward immigrants. Republicans have become more opposed, with one-third of Trump voters saying they see even legal immigration as a problem in the U.S.

And that’s where the country now stands, with a series of unresolved immigration issues and little hope of settling them.

Republican-led states have sued to try to end DACA, and that case likely will land back at the Supreme Court in 2023.

At the southern border, large numbers of people continue to turn themselves in to border officials and ask for asylum, saying they’re fleeing persecution at home. As of the latest numbers, 787,882 people are living in the U.S. waiting for a judge to hold a hearing on their asylum claims, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University, and the delay can routinely take years.

And, of course, about 10.5 million people currently live in the U.S. without legal authorization, many of them now longtime residents who have built businesses, raised families and set down roots in communities.

Legislation to resolve those and other immigration issues has stalled in Congress for nearly two decades. In the year to come, President Biden almost certainly will decide he needs to take executive action to resolve some of those issues. There’s a partisan divide on that prospect, too: Among Democrats, 38% believe Biden should use executive action to the greatest extent possible to resolve problems in the immigration system, 33% say he should use executive action only to a limited extent and 9% say he should take no executive actions and defer to Congress. Among Republicans, 41% say he should take no executive action.

Expect to hear a lot more shouting over the border in 2023.

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The latest from Washington

— Making a dramatic, risky wartime visit to Washington on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky strategized privately with Biden at the White House and then, to repeated standing ovations, delivered an impassioned plea to Congress for sustained U.S. military aid. “Your money is not charity,” Zelensky told the unusual joint session of Congress on Wednesday evening. “It is an investment in global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.” As Tracy Wilkinson, Courtney Subramanian and Nolan McCaskill reported, Biden greeted Zelensky with an announcement of $1.8 billion in new aid, including a sophisticated Patriot missile battery that Kyiv has long sought. But Zelensky made clear he wants more weapons than the U.S. is ready to provide.

— The House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection provided new details from its investigation with the release of 34 transcripts of depositions taken during its investigation. As Sarah Wire and Arit John reported, many of the released transcripts are from lesser-known figures who played behind-the-scenes roles in the attempt by former President Trump and his allies to overturn the 2020 presidential election, but the list also includes some of the biggest names involved, such as California attorney John Eastman, the architect of the legal theory embraced by Trump that posited the vice president could reject certain states’ electors. Nearly all of the witnesses in the released depositions pleaded the 5th Amendment at some point in their testimony.

— Congressional leaders saw their hopes of passing immigration reform in the lame-duck session dashed, Andrea Castillo reported. Democrats had seen the lame-duck session between the November election and the start of the new Congress as the last chance to pass significant legislation before they lose their majority in the House. They had hoped to attach immigration reforms to a $1.7-trillion package to fund the government that passed the Senate on Thursday afternoon. Lawmakers considered bills that would have offered pathways to citizenship for farmworkers, for Afghans evacuated to the U.S. since last year and for so-called Dreamers brought to the United States as children. Another proposal would have removed caps on the number of green cards granted each year to people from any given country. None of those bills advanced.

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The latest from California

— In the first two weeks of her administration, Mayor Karen Bass has sought to centralize the work of identifying homeless encampments with the most vulnerable people. She has also focused on identifying the steps in the process that delay people going indoors, or housing from being built. As Benjamin Oreskes reported, her steps so far have been cheered by advocates. But it remains to be seen whether the city can lease enough beds to meaningfully reduce or eliminate large encampments across Los Angeles.

— At a meeting of the county Board of Supervisors, county leaders voted unanimously to support Bass’ declaration of a state of emergency over homelessness. As Rebecca Ellis reported, Bass, who appeared at Tuesday’s meeting, said she wanted to work hand-in-hand with the county as she tries to cut through the city’s cumbersome bureaucracy to rapidly get people off the street. “The only way we can really solve this crisis is if we are working in complete partnership,” Bass told the board.

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