With the realistic possibility of Congress adopting comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents, interest in the issue among Latino voters has spiked -- and they stand ready to reward elected officials who take the lead and punish those who erect roadblocks.
That was the top-line finding of a survey of Latino voters released Tuesday by the polling firm Latino Decisions.
It shows that since the election -- after President Barack Obama and a number of leading Republican and Democratic senators have pushed strongly for immigration reform -- the issue has jumped past jobs and the economy as the No. 1 concern among Latino voters.
Before the election, 53 percent cited jobs and the economy as a priority, while 35 percent cited immigration reform. Now those numbers have flipped: 58 percent cite immigration reform and 38 percent cite jobs and the economy.
"That is now the top issue that Latinos want the president and Congress to address, and Latino voters are watching this very closely," said pollster Mark Baretto, a University of Washington political scientist.
In a conference call with reporters, Baretto said the poll found that a remarkable 75 percent of Latino voters say they are following the issue very closely.
"Typically, we don't find that 75 percent of the electorate is following anything that Congress is doing very closely," he said.
Additionally, the poll found that Latino voters who overwhelming backed Democrats in last fall's national elections say they are open to voting for Republicans if they feel the GOP is taking a leading role in helping to adopt comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.
More than 4 in 10 Latino voters (44 percent) say they would be more likely to back a Republican under that scenario, including 43 percent of those who voted for Obama last November.
And in a contest between a Republican who supports comprehensive reform against a Democrat who opposes it, 63 percent said they would vote for the Republican, while just 28 percent said they would back the Democrat.
"Republicans need to be part of the solution if they expect to rebuild their relationship with this critical electorate," said Clarissa Martinez de Castro of the National Council of La Raza. "Latinos are willing to look at candidates regardless of party, based on the issues."
Latino voters have been the focus of much post-election analysis, as they turned out in large numbers last fall, favoring Obama over Republican Mitt Romney by a more than 3-to-1 ratio. They were responsible for Obama's margin of victory in four states -- Colorado, Nevada, Florida and New Mexico.
That has stirred several leading Republicans to call on their party to soften its stance on immigration reform to embrace a position that would allow undocumented residents the opportunity to obtain citizenship if they meet certain conditions such as paying a fine and learning English.
The sentiment was bluntly stated by Arizona Sen. John McCain shortly after the election. "If we continue to polarize the Latino/Hispanic vote, our chances for being in the majority are minimal," he told CNN. "This issue of illegal immigration has obviously been a major driving factor in the decision making of the Hispanic voter."
Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the SEIU, said the election results and subsequent political developments have lifted the hopes of the Latino community.
"Those expectations are more pronounced today than they were in November," he said. "It proves to the GOP that the alarm clock is still ringing loud and clear."
Medina said Latino voters are following the issue closely enough that they will be able to detect any policy position that may appear to be supportive of reform but in fact falls short of embracing a clear pathway to citizenship.
"The idea that there could be legalization but no citizenship, they oppose that in no uncertain terms," he said. "That notion of no citizenship is flat-out wrong and unacceptable. It is no solution at all."
He also said an idea floated by some in Congress that would allow for a pathway to citizenship only after border security is sufficiently improved falls short of meaningful reform.
"If somebody's definition of what a secure border is becomes the goal post, we're never going to get there," he said.
The poll found that, absent some action on immigration reform that includes Republican leadership, Democrats are maintaining their advantage among Latino voters. At this moment, it found that 62 percent say they will likely vote for a Democrat for Congress in 2014, while just 15 percent say they likely will vote for a Republican.
The telephone poll of 800 Latino registered voters was conducted over the last two weeks of February. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.
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