The Top Issue for Hispanic Voters Is Not Immigration

by Reihan Salam

There is no conservative consensus on immigration policy. Among reform conservatives, however, there is a shared conviction that embracing comprehensive immigration reform is not a political panacea for the right. Last week, Ramesh Ponnuru observed that while “the establishment assumes that the party’s most fundamental problem is its position on immigration and social issues, and the resulting perception that it is intolerant,” reform conservatives believe that the fundamental problem is a domestic policy agenda that is not sufficiently responsive to the interests and concerns of low- and middle-income households, and the resulting perception that the GOP is the party of the rich. A more narrowly-tailored version of the establishment view on immigration is that conservatives must embrace comprehensive immigration reform to appeal to achieve political succes as Latino voters come to represent a larger share of the electorate. This is a widely-held belief that Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics has thoroughly dismantled, on the grounds that Republicans could fare well politically even if they win only a modest share of the Latino vote, provided they win a larger share of the non-Hispanic white vote, and that the chief determinant of Latino political preferences will be the socioeconomic standing of Latino voters. Using the Partisan Voting Index (PVI), a measure of the extent to which a given constituency varies from the national average, Trende finds that Latino voters were more Republican relative to the country as a whole in the presidential election of 2012 than they were in the presidential elections of 1972, 1976, 1984, 1988, and 1996.

None of this is to suggest that conservatives can’t or shouldn’t do more to woo Latino voters. Yet in pursuit of this goal, they’d be wise to follow the course laid out by the reformists and not the establishment. The Pew Research Center has found that core domestic policy issues like education and jobs and the economy are considerably more important to Latino voters than immigration policy:

In 2013, some 57% of Hispanic registered voters called education an “extremely important” issue facing the nation today. That’s compared with jobs and the economy (52%) and health care (43%). Just 32% said immigration.

Since 2007, about one-third of Hispanic registered voters have called immigration an “extremely important” issue to them personally. Even among Hispanic immigrants, the share was 35% in 2012.

While about seven-in-ten of all Latinos in 2013 said it was important for Congress to pass significant new immigration legislation that year, the share who said so was higher among immigrants (80%) than among the U.S. born (57%). Among the general public, 49% of U.S. adults said so when asked the same question in February.

In some respects, Hispanics’ focus on education as a top issue makes sense. In 2010, Hispanics had the highest birth rates—80 births per 1,000 women of childbearing age, compared with 64 for blacks, 59 for whites and 56 for Asians. Fully one-in-three (33%) Hispanics are school age (under 18), compared with one-in-five (20%) whites.

The economy has been another top issue among Hispanics, who said the recession hit them harder than other groups. Among Hispanics in 2012, the economy and jobs (54%) ranked about as high as education (55%) as an issue “extremely important” to them personally. The unemployment rate among Hispanics peaked at 12.3% in 2010, compared with 8.9% among non-Hispanics. The unemployment rate for Hispanics has steadily fallen since then (8.9% in 2013), but remains above pre-recession levels (4.9% in 2006).

While reform conservatives tend not to emphasize the ways in which their prescriptions might appeal to various ethnocultural constituencies, their emphasis on improving the quality and the productivity of K-12 and higher education and on easing the economic burdens associated with child-rearing seem to be tailor-made for Latino voters with children in the home.