Hundreds of people wait to pass from Mexico into the United States at the border crossing .Getty
Three months after President Barack Obama announced plans to suspend deportation for some undocumented immigrants, Latinos are giving him higher ratings for his handling of immigration.
In a new Fox News Latino poll of 887 likely Latino voters nationwide, 58 percent of respondents say they approve of the job Obama is doing on immigration, 32 percent disapprove.
Independent Latinos – who are considered particularly crucial in this presidential election – were evenly split, with 42 percent approving and 42 percent disapproving. Among Democrat Latinos, 77 percent approved, 14 percent disapproved. Republican Latinos largely (65 percent) disapprove, 26 percent approve.
Overall, Latinos graded Obama higher in the new poll than they did in earlier polls, when some 60 percent of Latinos said they disapproved of the way the administration had handled immigration, notably deportations, which have reached a record number under his presidency.
His new policy of so-called “deferred action,” political experts say, seems to have at least in part energized Latino voters. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, allows undocumented immigrants to apply for a work permit and a temporary stay if they were brought to the country as children and have no criminal background.
The program is beginning just months before what promises to be a tight contest for the White House in which the Hispanic vote may play an important role.
Before the new policy, many Latinos expressed a sense of having been betrayed by Obama, who had campaigned in 2008 with a promise to Latinos that he would vigorously push for comprehensive immigration reform that would include a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants.
Not only did that not happen, Latinos said in polls and interviews, but the Obama administration pursued immigration enforcement with more zeal than any other administration in recent decades.
Under Obama, deportations reached roughly 400,000 annually since 2009, about 30 percent higher than the annual average during the second term of the Bush administration, and about double the annual average during George W. Bush’s first term, according to Pew.
A Pew Hispanic Center poll late last year showed that 59 percent of Latinos surveyed said they disapproved of the way the administration had handled deportations, in contrast to 27 percent who approved.
The danger of such exasperation, political experts and Obama supporters believed, was that Latinos who had supported Obama in 2008 would just stay home on Election Day.
“For most Latinos, the thinking was that the president was all talk and no action,” said Allert Brown-Gort, associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. “His announcement in June took away the ‘no action’ feeling among Latinos.”
Brown-Gort said the disillusionment over the failure to address problems with the immigration system was unlikely to convert former Latino Obama supporters into Romney voters.
“Rather, the question was were they going to go out and vote,” he said. What the Fox News Latino poll indicates, he added, is that “the deferred action policy has mobilized people who weren’t planning to vote.”
To be sure, Latino voters say that economy and jobs are their top concerns when considering for whom to vote. Immigration ranks fifth, behind the economy, health care, education and social issues (such as abortion and gay marriage), according to the Fox News Latino poll.
But in polls and interviews, Latinos say they pay attention to the tone with which immigration is addressed. A seemingly hostile tone, they say, can come across as anti-Latino and sour them on a candidate, even one with whom they agree on many other issues.
Tone in campaign discussions about immigration came into focus during the GOP primary, when most of the candidates vying for their party’s nomination took hard-line positions on such things as the DREAM Act, English as the official language, and militarizing the U.S. –Mexican border. Romney voiced support for immigration policies that would spur undocumented immigrants to “self-deport.”
To the question about what role the GOP’s views on immigration has shaped the tendency of Latinos to back Democrats in elections, 24 percent said in the Fox News Latino poll that “it is the single most important reason,” 41 percent said “it is one of several important reasons,” 15 percent said “it is a small reason” and 12 percent said “it is not a reason at all.”
“For most voting Latinos, immigration is not a top issue, but [while] it’s not the policy itself that is important, it’s a candidate’s [immigration] politics that reflects what they think about Latinos,” Brown-Gort said.
Gabriela Domenzain, director of Hispanic Press for the Obama-Biden campaign, said in a statement: “Mitt Romney has left no room for doubt that he is on the wrong side of all issues of importance to Latinos and is the most extreme presidential nominee in recent history on immigration."
"Romney’s policies would disproportionately hurt Hispanics," Domenzain said, "and nothing short of a complete reversal of his positions would warrant Latinos reconsidering him as a candidate."
Proponents of strict immigration enforcement say the split among Latino Independent voters is key.
“These results demonstrate that there is a real divide among this extraordinarily complex component of the electorate,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a Washington D.C.-based group that favors strict immigration policies. “The condescending elite that cavalierly claims to speak for a Latino voting bloc disrespects the fierce individualism of Latino voters – who are clearly wide ranging in their views on [immigration].”
“Independents are evenly split on the President’s job performance, and Romney is not going to lose because of a strong immigration enforcement posture,” Stein said. “A substantial and growing segment of Latino voters favor strong enforcement and reduced overall immigration – and right now these voters tend to be Republican or Independents. The priority issues are jobs with career potential, financial security, quality education – not amnesty and not bringing the rest of the world to the United States.”
Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America’s Voice and America’s Voice Education Fund, a Washington D.C.-based group that pushes for more lenient immigration policies, agrees that Latino Independent voters are up for grabs.
“It’s interesting that Independents are split down the middle,” she said. “It’s a swing element for the Latino electorate, they’re the ones who came out for Obama in 2008. The fact that they’re split is important, it shows that he has to continue to make bold moves on immigration.”
The poll was conducted between the 11th and 13th of September among a random sample of 887 likely Latin voters. The margin of sampling error is three percentage points.
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente