In the state of New Mexico, immigration has become an important voting issue following legislative measures seen as more ‘anti-immigrant,’ according to a new report. ( Photo: David Lienemann/Getty Images)

New Mexico polls show how immigration policy has galvanized Latino voters

While Latinos, like everyone else, cite the economy and jobs as their primary concern, polls have been consistently showing immigration is an important issue to many Latino voters – even among Hispanics who are not immigrants, and for whom the issue was not particularly important a few years before. Recently, President Obama and Vice President Biden have said Latinos are rejecting Republican stances on immigration issues, and Democrats say this has helped mobilize a good part of the Latino electorate in their favor.  Is this really the case?

“I think what it comes down to is the Democratic party is benefiting from the missteps of the Republican party,” says New Mexico political scientist Gabriel Sanchez. “The moves by Republican legislators have heightened an underlying sense of group identity among Latinos.” How does this translate politically?  Sanchez explains this in a new Latino Decisions report.

New Mexico, says Sanchez, offers an example of how a Republican-sponsored policy perceived by a majority of Latinos as ‘anti-immigrant’ has helped mobilize Latino voters on immigration as a key issue.

Sanchez studied polls of New Mexico Latino voters after Republican Latina Governor Susana Martinez issued an executive order requiring law enforcement to check the citizenship of people who are arrested, as well as her failed attempts to repeal a law allowing undocumented immigrants to acquire driver’s licenses.

On the driver’s license issue in New Mexico, 70 percent of the state’s Latino voters said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to have a driver’s license, with some restrictions, compared to 21 percent who agreed with Governor Martinez. “What is intriguing,” says Sanchez, “is that the Governor’s immigration agenda may have heightened the salience of immigration among Hispanic voters in New Mexico,” he says.

RELATED:  California lawmakers move to give undocumented driver’s licenses

Yet what is interesting is that immigration was not a galvanizing or unifying issue for New Mexico’s Latinos as recently as 2006.  A survey at that time found over half – 51.5 percent – of Latinos in New Mexico, said relationships between native-born Hispanics and more recent Hispanic immigrants were ‘generally negative.’

Fast forward to today. A recent America’s Voice/Latino Decisions survey of Hispanic voters in New Mexico found immigration comes right after the economy as “the most important issue facing the Hispanic community.”  What is more telling, 79 percent said immigration policy was important to their vote. In a recent America’s Voice/Latino Decisions survey, nearly 60 percent of New Mexico Latinos say they personally know someone who is undocumented, whether it be family, friend or co-worker.

RELATED: Decision 2012- Why immigration matters

Changing attitudes about immigration as a galvanizing political issue is being seen nationally for a while now. A June impreMedia/Latino Decisions poll found 76 percent of Latinos “believe that an anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant environment” exists today,” says Sanchez.  He also cites another poll which found 60 percent of Arizona Latinos felt that upholding Arizona’s SB1070 law contributes “to an anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic” environment.

“Immigration policy is salient to Latinos across key battleground states, and key to Latino enthusiasm levels.”  This, of course, will be able to be fully examined after the presidential election on November 6th.

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