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New Poll Shows Tradeoffs on Immigration

It's been pretty obvious for a while that there's a major split between Hispanics and non-Hispanics on the immigration policy furor sparked by Arizona's new law authorizing state and local law enforcement agencies to enforce federal immigration laws.

A new MSNBC/NBC/Telemundo poll helps outline the political choices this situation poses for both parties.

To put it simply, white Americans tend to support the Arizona law while Hispanics tend to oppose it, by roughly even two-to-one margins. But the internals of the poll tell a more interesting story. The short-term advantage to Republicans of loudly backing the Arizona law is reinforced by the fact that many Democratic-leaning voters--notably suburban women and women over 50--say they'd look favorably on candidates raising Arizona. And the long-term problem for Republicans is reinforced by the finding that hostility to the Arizona law--and to the GOP--is especially strong among younger Hispanics.

Complicating the picture further is the fact that a sizeable majority of all Americans (60-29) continue to support some sort of comprehensive immigration reform with provisions that include stronger border security and sanctions against both employers of undocumented workers and the workers themselves--short, however, of deportation. (This is what TDS Co-Editor Ruy Teixeira has been pointing out). And big majorities want Congress to do something about the problem.

This last finding may tempt Democrats to move ahead with comprehensive reform in Congress, heightening Hispanic hostility to alternative approaches while convincing non-Hispanic voters that it's possible to increase enforcement without deportation schemes or potential harrassment of citizens and legal immigrants. But as Jon Chait notes today, certain GOP obstruction of comprehensive immigration reform legislation might simply increase the frustration of both Hispanic and non-Hispanic voters about the status quo, while shifting attention away from Republican extremism on the subject. And as TDS Co-Editor William Galston recently argued, highlighting this issue is a perilous strategy for Democrats, given the likely composition of the 2010 electorate.

There are big risks and big tradeoffs for both parties in making immigration a big issue in 2010. I doubt Republicans in most parts of the country are going to be able to keep themselves from expressing solidarity with Arizona and trying to make this a wedge issue. Democrats need to be more consciously strategic than that, which probably means a principled position that avoids the extremes of "amnesty" as well as deportation or ethnic profiling by law enforcement agencies--but that also makes Republicans play offense on immigration, and lets them become truly offensive.

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