Will the GOP Snatch Defeat from the Jaws of Victory on Immigration?

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For the first time in several years the GOP has opened a polling lead on who voters trust more to handle immigration, a clear reaction to President Obama’s overreach on the issue. However, the responses indicate a more nuanced view of immigration policy than this headline might suggest:

Now, 34 percent of voters in the most competitive House and Senate races say they trust the Republican Party more on immigration than Democrats, who had the backing of 31 percent of those surveyed. Thirty-five percent said they weren’t sure which party they trusted more on the issue.

Among voters who identified themselves as independents, 26 percent said they trusted Republicans more than Democrats on immigration, while 18 percent said the reverse. And 48 percent of Latino voters said they trusted the Democratic Party more vs. 27 percent of Hispanic voters who said the GOP is more trustworthy on the issue.

On the issue of unaccompanied minors, nearly half — or 49 percent — of voters said the migrant children should be deported after they have had appropriate judicial hearings. Just 29 percent said the children should be allowed to stay in the United States after going through the legal channels, and 20 percent said they didn’t know.

Obama has really handed Republicans who are running for office a gift in his mishandling of the border issue. It looked for all the world like he and the Democrats were prepared to blow away the Republicans on this issue, but by overplaying his hand on the open borders side, he has now poisoned it for himself and for the Democrats. However, Republicans should not assume that the public is now roughly in the camp of Steve King on this issue. Voters’ feelings about immigration continue to be confusing, contradictory, and governed largely by what words are used to describe the terms of the debate:

Still, the POLITICO poll found robust support for comprehensive immigration reform. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they support an immigration overhaul, while 33 percent said they were opposed.

Comprehensive immigration reform is a key issue for voters, according to the poll. Three out of four voters said reform was either very or somewhat important in choosing which candidate they will support, while 25 percent said it was either not very or not at all important.

Three in 10 members of the president’s party said they disapprove of his performance on the issue, while 70 percent of white voters and just shy of half of Latinos felt that way.

Voters in the battleground races were split on a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already living in the United States: 51 percent are in favor and 49 percent opposed, according to the poll.

Republicans face the reality that, although they are for the moment in the driver’s seat on this issue, there are two traps they can fall into. The first is the obvious trap of too much immigration permissiveness which will alienate both their own party and also independents and swing voters. But the second is the equally serious trap of swinging the pendulum too far the other way, especially in terms of allowing emotionally charged rhetoric and poor spokesmen to the front to elucidate the conservative position on immigration. The reality is that the majority of the country desires to see a day soon, when the border is stabilized, that a path to citizenship becomes a viable option for people who have been in the country for a certain amount of time.

Obama assumed that he could jiu-jitsu the Republicans into dispiriting their base in the middle of an election fight and in so doing miscalculated the overall mood of the American public and instead made things worse for his side. Republicans must avoid falling into the same trap.

It is right and proper for the GOP to insist the we obtain some level of control over our border before the debate on a path to citizenship can move forward. But we should recognize that in the long run, once this happens, we will either need to be open to a path to citizenship or face dire electoral consequences, and our rhetoric should reflect that. It is a delicate balancing act that should not be attempted by the incautious.