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The recent Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. United States, which tackled Arizona’s controversial 2010 immigration law, put the debate about immigration policy back on the radar of the public and injected the issue into the presidential campaigns, highlighting sharp distinctions between the candidates that could make a difference, at least among Hispanic voters, at the polls in November.
In the 5-3 decision, the justices upheld the authority of the federal government to set immigration policy and laws, while leaving the most divisive section of the law, a provision that allows police officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws, intact. In the wake of the ruling, which was a victory for advocates of federally based, comprehensive immigration policy, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared that he would have “preferred to see the Supreme Court give more latitude to the states, not less.”
President Obama, meanwhile, recently exercised his ability to shape immigration policy at the federal level by announcing a Department of Homeland Security directive that would defer the deportation of, and grant work permits to, illegal immigrants under the age of 30 who came to the U.S. as children. Obama announced that he was “pleased” by the high court’s decision, and vowed to continue to make progress on comprehensive immigration reform.
New findings from Public Religion Research Institute’s June Religion & Politics Tracking Survey show that Americans are less divided both on the approach and substance of the issue than one might assume. When asked whether a range of issues should be decided at the national or the state level, nearly 8-in-10 (77 percent) Americans say that immigration policy should be decided at the national level, while 1-in-5 (20 percent) say it should be left up to the states. Americans are more unified in their support for a federal approach to immigration policy than on any other issue, including health care policy and same-sex marriage. Strong majorities of Democrats (85 percent), Independents (77 percent), Republicans (68 percent), and Tea Party members (69 percent) all agree that immigration policy should be decided at the national level.
Moreover, a majority of Americans support immigration policy that goes beyond the more limited recent executive order by the Obama administration and closely reflects the national DREAM Act. A majority (55 percent) of Americans—and 72 percent of minorities—agree that illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children should be able to gain legal resident status if they join the military or go to college.
If the Arizona v. United States decision, combined with Obama’s new directive, throws the spotlight back on immigration reform in any sustained way during the presidential campaign, it could have a serious impact on the Hispanic vote.
And if Obama is able to maintain his overwhelming support with this crucial and growing constituency, especially in key states, it could make the difference come November.
Hector Cruz (L) and Liz Alvarado listen to a speaker during a rally in Miami, to protest against the U.S. Supreme Court decision that allows non-federal police officers in Arizona to perform immigration checks, June 25, 2012.