DREAM actWhile the Democratic divide over trade rages in Congress the GOP’s long simmering divides over foreign policy and cultural issues fester.  But one issue has divided the GOP like no other along virtually every line, ideology, class and age.  I speak of immigration, the issue the GOP is united on in vague policy details but little else.  A recent survey from Pew highlighted major fault lines in the divide.

Generally, the GOP is united around several ideas.  First, secure the border.  Second, allow highly skilled immigrants to enter the country first.  Third, don’t let illegals jump the line under “amnesty.”  But after these details the leanings of the GOP faithful are varied. You will find some GOP Senators and Representatives supportive of ideas like the DREAM Act or allowing illegals who serve in the military to get citizenship or permanent status.  Yet, other Republicans oppose these ideas.  Such opposition can partly be laid at the feet of  the GOP moving from a middle manager party in the suburbs to a fiscally diverse party with the influx of blue-collar, older voters into the party.  These voters, mostly white, hold views to the right of the nation on immigration related issues.

For the survey’s purposes blue-collar voters were defined as falling within a certain income level and lacking a college degree. A solid 45 percent of non-college Republican partisans (including independents who lean toward the party) said that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. should not even be provided legal status. Only 28 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed. There also is a divide over citizenship. Most college-educated Republicans believe the estimated 11-million plus undocumented immigrants should be allowed to apply for permanent residency (35 percent) or citizenship (31 percent). Among non-college Republicans, a combined 51 percent said the undocumented should be allowed to apply for citizenship (30 percent) or legal status short of citizenship (21 percent).

Similarly, 45 percent of Republicans over 50, compared to only 36 percent of younger GOP partisans, think that the undocumented should not be provided any legal status. Just 25 percent of older Republicans, as opposed to 37 percent of the younger, say that the undocumented should be allowed to apply for citizenship.  In other words, younger GOP voters are more likely to favor a more liberal version of immigration reform.

Nationally, only 27 percent of all adults say the undocumented should be denied any legal status, while 42 percent said they should be able to apply for citizenship and 26 percent backed permanent residency.

The GOP divide on immigration extends far beyond the Southern border but also into legal immigration. Nationally, just 31 percent said that legal immigration should be reduced. Republican partisans who are either college-educated (at 30 percent supporting a reduction) and or younger than 50 (at 35 percent) largely tracked those views. But 42 percent of both Republicans without college degrees and those older than 50 want to reduce the legal immigration level.

The remaining non-college Republicans preferred to either maintain the current level of immigration (35 percent) or increase it (20 percent). By contrast, nearly two-thirds of college-educated Republicans would either maintain (42 percent) or increase (23 percent) current levels. Nationally, 24 percent of adults would increase legal immigration, while 39 percent would maintain the current level.

There is a marked contrast between the views of blue-collar Republicans, old/young Republicans and the general public on immigrants impacts on society. Over 51 percent of all adults agreed with the assessment “immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.” A minority, 41 percent, took the opposite view, agreeing with the statement, “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.”

College educated Republicans split with 38 percent endorsing the favorable statement and 49% the negative view.  But older, non college educated Republicans were even more negative.  Among non college educated Republicans a mere 29 percent supported the favorable statement compared to 62 percent the negative.  Among older Republicans over 50 the view was even more negative with only 23 percent endorsing immigrants strengthening America and 67 percent being a burden.  By contrast, over 3/4ths of Latinos, almost two-thirds of Millennials, 60+ percent of college educated adults and 55 percent of blacks believed immigrants benefit society.

These views have a profound impact on how the GOP approaches the issue.  More immediately, it is shaping the policy positions GOP Presidential contenders are taking on the issue.  For example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee have hinted they might be open to reducing legal immigration.  Less hinting and more open about it is Rick Santorum.  Santorum has called for reducing legal immigration from 25 to 50 percent.  Yet other Republicans have taken a less restrictive approach to the issue.  Marco Rubio is against capping legal immigration and Jeb Bush is forcefully against such an idea.  Unsurprisingly, these views will appeal to different kinds of Republican primary voters.

The salience of the immigration issue in the GOP primary is unclear.  With a muddled field none of the GOP contenders have had to discuss the issue to a great degree.  This gives the ultimate GOP nominee a chance to position themselves to the middle of their party on the issue and perhaps win minority voters.  But, the threat is real a Santorum could pull the winner to the right and force the GOP nominee to try to win largely on the force of the white vote (didn’t work out so well in 2012).

Ultimately, the survey reveals deep schisms within the GOP not just on illegal but also legal immigration.  The GOP nominee will need to be able to find a satisfying middle ground to appeal to the party faithful and an increasingly diverse electorate.


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