More than jobs or the economy, immigration is the lens through which Latinos evaluate Republicans, Democrats and the president, a new national poll reveals, while 78 percent say it is very or extremely important for Congress to approve a path to citizenship this year.
As such, support for comprehensive immigration reform will dictate Latino support at the polls, the survey indicates, meaning dozens of House seats, pivotal swing states and future presidential elections could hang in the balance.
“There’s a huge potential to move and sway the Latino vote based on this issue,” says Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington and co-founder of Latino Decisions, which conducted the poll. “If this sort of ratio holds, this will be bad news for the Republican Party.”
Among prior GOP voters — Latinos who have voted Republican in a local or national election — 73 percent say it is important to enact immigration reform this year. Forty five percent say they are more likely to vote Republican if the party takes a leadership role on reform. And only 13 percent agreed border security should be the top priority. Instead, 81 percent insist a pathway to citizenship, along with border security, must be the primary priority.
The poll of 500 Latino registered voters — in English or Spanish at the discretion of the respondent — was conducted from May 25 to June 1. It had a 4.4 percent margin of error.
“The surprise is not how galvanizing this issue is for Latinos — we saw that with the result of the  election — but indeed, this is intensifying not tempering,” says Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration and national campaigns for National Council of La Raza. “It is deeply personal. What Republicans decide to do on this issue is decisive.”
Just 26 percent of those polled have a favorable view of how the GOP has handled immigration. But support for reform among self-identifying Republican Latinos rose to 53 percent once told three GOP Senators support the Gang of Eight bill.
At the same time, 53 percent of swing voters said they are more likely to vote Democratic if that party takes a leadership role on reform.
Two-thirds of respondents say they personally know an undocumented immigrant — with 51 percent pointing to a family member.
Evelyn Rivera, who was born in Colombia, then raised in Florida, says her mother was detained then deported just before Rivera graduated high school. “I cannot wait to become a citizen and vote,” said the United We Dream committee member. Rivera added that she is disappointed in Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for “threatening to walk away” from the immigration bill.
Besides Rubio, Sen. Orrin Hatch is considered a key vote as supporters hope bipartisan support in the Senate will influence obstinate House Republicans.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice Education Fund, says it is not impossible for the GOP to turn the tide, noting nine years ago, President George W. Bush won 40 percent of the Latino vote including the swing states of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida. But based on the partisanship of younger voters — and the fact 900,000 Latinos will turn 18 each year between now and 2028 — it won’t be easy. ‘They literally are facing an existential moment of truth on whether they can survive as a national party,” Sharry says.
Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Latino vote in last year’s election.
Barreto agrees the GOP “is not going to be able to win another national election” unless they capture near 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2016 and beyond.
Thad Hall, a political science professor at the University of Utah, says the poll serves as fuel to a broader context: the GOP as obstructionist. “As the country is becoming more diverse,” he says, “it is not really a good thing to be known as the old, white guy party.”