The South Carolina primary offered plenty for political observers to draw conclusions about the present mood of the Republican Party.
Besides the obvious effect Saturday’s results had on the various candidates, there was one surprising exit poll finding which revealed the supposed immigration views of Republican voters.
Upon first glance, that appears to be a rebuke of the rhetoric and plans of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and other Republicans who have harangued against granting amnesty to illegal immigrants. It also gives the impression that GOP voters agree with Marco Rubio when it comes to the issue in that they favor comprehensive immigration reform that increases migration levels.
However, peering deeper into the way the question is asked and other recent polls paints a different picture of the Republican majority’s attitude towards immigration.
First off, the exit poll asked if illegals should be given legal status. The Gang of Eight bill championed by Rubio and Republican leadership offered illegals the chance to earn citizenship, which isn’t synonymous with legal status.
Second off, the question asked about “illegals working in the United States.” The working part is important because it establishes the idea in the minds of those who are surveyed that the migrants being discussed are those who are otherwise law-abiding, hard working people. The results could be different if respondents were asked simply about illegal immigrants residing in the U.S.
And it probably would be considering another poll that expanded the question to include what priorities respondents have in regards to illegal immigration. In a CNN poll conducted last summer, 64 percent of Republicans said measures covering illegals should focus on deporting them and securing the border rather than giving legal status to illegal aliens.
In contrast, the immigration reform bills pushed forward by Republican leaders in 2007 and 2013 were more focused on granting legal status, then securing the border. As Senator Rubio articulated when he was advocating the Gang of Eight bill, legalization would come first and it would not be “conditional.”
Of course, Gang of Eight and its Bush-era predecessor contained language which promised to halt illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, but Republicans didn’t argue in favor of these acts because they would accomplish that. They argued for amnesty on the presumption that it would make for good outreach to Latinos and increase the kinds of immigration wanted by Republican donors.
Not surprisingly, the security measures these bills called for were woefully inadequate. Attempts to fortify the border have been consistently thwarted by opaque environmental regulations. The Gang of Eight bill security provisions, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and other experts, would’ve actually hamstrung the ability of law enforcement to halt illegal migration and the tougher ones looked to be overlooked or overruled in court.
Yet, many Republicans still pushed forward on it in the hope it would work miracles for them electorally.
Considering how well Ronald Reagan’s amnesty worked out for Republicans in the 80s and 90s, that’s not a likely result. Nor is reviving the “border security plus legalization” aspects central to Reagan’s act going to do much in terms of ending illegal immigration in the 21st century.
Additionally, the Gang of Eight bill would’ve led to a substantial increase in immigration altogether, which advocates claim would reduce the level of illegal migration. The argument goes that fewer people will break the law to try to come here if legal immigration is made a whole lot easier.However, that’s a goal at odds with the interests of the Republican rank-and-file. According to a 2015 Pew Research study, 92 percent of self-identified Republicans either want immigration decreased or kept at current levels. The majority of that figure (67 percent) prefer a migration reduction. Only seven percent agree with the party leaders who want to see immigration increased.
Furthermore, while Republican leaders like Paul Ryan love to expound upon how immigration is the lifeblood of America, only 31 percent of the party’s base think it strengthens the nation. Fifty-three percent said current immigration makes the U.S. worse off. (RELATED: Poll: 7 In 10 Americans Do Not Want More Immigration)
While it is hard to peer deeply into the minds of the South Carolinians who answered the exit polls, if they are like the typical Republicans, they approach the issue of illegal immigration with the first principle of securing the border and eliminating the problem in the future, not granting legal status in a desperate bid to make the GOP look more like a Benetton ad.