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On immigration, racial divide runs deep

White and Latino Americans are deeply divided over immigration, their allegiances to the nation’s political parties and their opinions about President Barack Obama, according to a new NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo poll.
Image: Members of Los Angeles Tea Party
Members of Los Angeles Tea Party and Westside Republicans hold rally against the Los Angeles City Council's vote to boycott Arizona because of its new immigration law on May 25.Damian Dovarganes / AP file
/ Source: NBC News

White and Latino Americans are deeply divided over immigration, their allegiances to the nation’s political parties and their opinions about President Barack Obama, according to a new NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo poll.

And in the wake of Arizona’s controversial anti-illegal immigration law, the survey suggests that Republicans could get an immediate political boost, but may face a long-term problem among Latinos, the nation’s fastest-growing demographic group.

“Are there areas where the Republicans can make short-term gains? Yes,” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this poll with GOP pollster Bill McInturff.

“But the fear is that they have long-term losses.”

Breaking down the white-Latino divide
In the poll, 61 percent say they favor Arizona’s new anti-illegal immigration law, which would require local and state law enforcement officers to question people about their immigration status if they have reason to suspect a person is in the country illegally. The law would also make it a crime to lack the proper registration documents.

But there’s a divide among white and Latino respondents: 70 percent of whites support the law, versus just 31 percent of Latinos. In fact, 58 percent of Latinos say they strongly oppose it.

That’s not the only chasm between White and Latino America. While 68 percent of Latinos believe that immigration strengthens the United States, just 43 percent of whites think that.

And they differ in their perceptions about Obama and the political parties. Although the president’s job-approval rating sits at 48 percent overall, down two points from an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll earlier this month, only 38 percent of whites approve of Obama’s job, versus 68 percent of Latinos who do.

What’s more, 37 percent of whites view the Republican Party favorably, while just 22 percent of Latinos have a favorable impression of the GOP.

And although only 34 percent of whites hold a favorable opinion of the Democratic Party, 54 percent of Latinos view the party in a positive light. 

“The gap between whites and Hispanic American is substantial,” says McInturff, the Republican pollster.

Short-term and long-term political fallout
According to the poll, Arizona’s law could benefit Republicans in the short term if they choose to make it a campaign issue. A GOP-controlled Arizona legislature passed the bill, and it was signed into law by the state's Republican governor, Jan Brewer.

Forty percent of registered voters say they would side with a Republican congressional candidate who supports the law, compared with 26 percent who would back a Democratic candidate who opposes it.

In particular, Hart notes that women over 50 and white suburban women — who tend to support generic Democratic congressional candidates — are more inclined to vote for a Republican who supports the Arizona law.

If he were a GOP political strategist, Hart says, “I know where I’m putting my mail money and targeting money.”  

But both Hart and McInturff argue that the Arizona law could present Republicans with a long-term problem among Latinos, a majority of whom (53 percent) say they would prefer a Democratic congressional candidate who opposes the law.

For one thing, Latinos remain a sleeping — yet growing — political giant. In the poll, 23 percent of Latino respondents said they aren’t registered to vote, versus 12 percent of whites and 16 percent of African Americans.

In addition, Latinos under the age of 40 have a stronger attachment to President Obama (73 percent of them approve of his job) and a stronger dislike of Arizona’s law (75 percent of them oppose it) than older Latinos do.

And Latinos young and old think Democrats would do a better job than Republicans in protecting the interests of minorities (58-11 percent), in representing the opportunity to move up the economic ladder (46-20 percent), in dealing with immigration (37-12 percent) and in promoting strong moral values (33-23 percent).

The only advantage that they gave Republicans was in enforcing security along the U.S.-Mexico border (31-20 percent).  

Early support for comprehensive immigration reform
President Obama has indicated a desire this year for Congress to tackle comprehensive immigration reform that would bolster border enforcement and give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

But he maintains that reforming the nation’s immigration system is a big political challenge. “I don’t have 60 votes in the Senate,” he said last week in a joint press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderon. “I’ve got to have some support from Republicans.”

Yet the NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo poll shows early public support for comprehensive immigration reform, with 60 percent of all adults favoring it and 29 percent opposing it.

Also, supermajorities back the individual components of this reform.

For example: 73 percent support imposing new fines on businesses that hire illegal immigrants; 71 percent support increasing border security by building a fence along the border and training more Border Patrol agents; and 65 percent support allowing undocumented immigrants who are already in the country to pay a fine, learn English and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become U.S. citizens.

McInturff, however, cautions against reading too much into this early support — given that the poll didn’t test the language that opponents of comprehensive immigration reform would use. In addition, he points out that only 19 percent of all adults say they strongly favor the legislation, which suggests soft support.

“It’s a little optimistic to look at this data and project that there would be a consensus of what to do,” he said.

Still, a plurality of Americans (41 percent) say they would be upset if Congress doesn’t pass an immigration bill.

And there does appear to be a frustration with how the federal government is handling immigration, with only 32 percent approving Obama’s handling of the issue.

Other results
Here are some other results from the NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo poll:

  • For the first time since 2002, Republicans hold a lead in a generic congressional ballot test, with 44 percent preferring a GOP-controlled Congress and 43 percent preferring a Democratic-controlled one
  • Unlike other recent NBC/Wall Street Journal polls, the Democratic Party has a net-positive favorable/unfavorable rating, 41-40 percent; the Republican Party maintains its net-negative rating, 33-40 percent
  • And 49 percent say the U.S. should continue to grant citizenship to all children born in the United States, versus 46 percent who believe the law should be changed so that children of illegal immigrants are not automatically granted citizenship. (Among Latinos, a whopping 79 percent believe the country should continue to grant automatic citizenship.)

The poll was conducted May 20-23 of 700 adults, and has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.7 percentage points. The poll also surveyed an oversample of 300 Hispanic adults, and the margin of error among those respondents is plus-minus 5.7 percentage points.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.