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The Obama administration’s deportations could alienate Latinos

President Obama participates in a town hall-style forum to encourage Latino Americans to enroll in Obamacare health insurance plans on March 6, 2014, at the Newseum in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters )

America’s growing ethnic diversity — and particularly the increasing number of Latinos — is widely thought to advantage Democrats.  For this reason, many argue that Republicans need to get behind immigration reform (and I don’t disagree).  But could Democrats also face challenges in securing the loyalties of Latinos, and especially young Latinos?  Two new pieces of research raise this possibility.  And in both, a potential problem is how Latinos perceive the Obama administration’s record on deportations.

Political scientist Tom Wong of the University of California, San Diego, recently completed a survey of undocumented millennials.  Because this is a very difficult group to locate via traditional polling methods, the survey used Facebook ads and peer-to-peer sampling to interview over 3,100 people.  Wong and colleagues then used several means to validate the undocumented status of respondents, resulting in a sample of 1,472 undocumented people between the ages of 18 and 35.  Wong discusses the survey’s methodology more here and notes that the need for caution in generalizing from this sample to the entire population of undocumented millennials.

With that caveat noted, three findings stand out.  One is that nearly half of these undocumented millennials identify as politically independent.  Most of these do lean toward the Democratic Party, but Wong speculated to me that this initial identification as independent could mean that “undocumented immigrant youth are more politically in play than has been previously thought.”  This is consistent with other work on immigrant political attitudes by political scientists Zoltan Hajnal and Taeku Lee.

Second, undocumented millennials stated that Democrats needed to deliver on immigration reform.  Nearly 70 percent of the sample — and a similar fraction of undocumented millennials who identified as Democrats — said that “whether I support the Democratic Party in the future depends on whether they are able to deliver comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship.”  If we can take this statement at face value, it suggests that many of these undocumented millennials will not be solidly in the Democratic Party without tangible progress on immigration reform.

Third, undocumented millennials also express concern about deportation.  Roughly 70 percent — and 74 percent of self-identified Democrats — said that “whether I support the Democratic Party in the future depends on whether they work to address the issue of the separation of families because of deportation.”  Of course, some Latinos and immigrant rights groups have criticized the Obama administration for its record on deportation.

The potential problem of deportations also shows up in a second piece of research.  In “Mass Deportations and the Future of Latino Partisanship,” Alex Street, Chris Zepeda-­Millán, and Michael Jones-Correa show that relatively few U.S.-born Latinos know of the Obama administration’s record on deportations.  Street and colleagues then conducted an experiment in which a random half of Latino respondents were told that “In fact, the Obama administration has deported around one and half times more people each year than the average under President Bush.”  This reduced the perception that Democrats were “welcoming” toward Latinos by 10 points.

Note that these were U.S.-born Latinos, not Latinos at risk of deportation.  But the information mattered nonetheless, perhaps because 27 percent of U.S.-born Latinos reported that a friend or family member had been deported, and nearly half (46 percent) had a parent who was undocumented at some point.

Street and colleagues go on to point out that support for Obama has been varied much more among Latinos than either whites or blacks — again suggesting that loyalty to the Democratic Party isn’t solidified for many Latinos.  Here’s a graph with Gallup data:

Of course, neither piece of research is making some definitive prediction about the future.  The point is simply that the political identities of many Latinos are still being formed and their current leaning toward the Democratic Party could change, depending on the party’s record on immigration and deportation.  In other words, it’s not only Republicans who need to be thinking about immigration and their standing among Latino voters.