Election Analysis

Asian American voters show strong support for immigration reform

President Obama’s use of his discretionary executive powers to address immigration policy this week will be seen by some as his fulfillment on a principled promise. Others will see it as a calculated overture to Latino voters, whose views on immigration are well defined and have clear consequences for the future success of the Democratic Party. How will it play among other segments of the electorate? Here we take a brief look at Asian Americans on immigration. We show some defining features about Asian Americans as immigrants, review their views on immigration policy, and examine whether their views on immigration are riven by partisanship.

Demographics

The demographics paint a clear picture: Asian Americans are a community of immigrants. A significant number of Asian Americans will be affected by the President’s announcement on immigration reform and deportation relief.

  • Roughly two-thirds of the Asian American population is foreign-born. Among the voting age population, this proportion is even higher, at close to four-fifths. By comparison, more than a third of the US Latino population is foreign-born (37%).
  • More new immigrants to the United States today come from Asia than any other part of the world. Since 2008, more than 40 percent of new legal permanent resident admissions have been from Asia, a figure that eclipses the rate from our neighbors to the South (only 25 percent of new legal migration since 2008 has been from Mexico and Central America).
  • Roughly one in every nine undocumented immigrants is Asian American. In 2011, an estimated 1.3 million Asian Americans were unauthorized, with roughly 280,000 from China, 270,000 from the Philippines, 240,000 from India, 230,000 from Korea, and 170,000 from Vietnam.

Public Opinion

While a forceful majority of Asians in America are immigrants, immigration is not the single defining issue in their politics and policy opinions. At the same time, Asian Americans view immigration as very important to their politics and support immigration reform at high levels. Data here are from the 2014 Asian American Election Eve Poll conducted by Asian American Decisions just prior to the recent mid-term elections.

 

  • The issue salience of immigration is high, but not foremost among all concerns. When asked what are “the most important issues facing the Asian American community that politicians should address?” 13% mention immigration. Immigration is the fourth most commonly mentioned issue after the economy and jobs (32%), education and schools (22%), and health care (18%).
  • Immigration is also important to how Asian Americans decide to vote: 17% rated immigration as “the most important” issue while another 30% rated it as “one of the most important” issues. At the same time, immigration is not as key to the Asian American vote as other issues: asked about health care, 40% rated it as “the most important” issue and another 33% rated health care “one of the most important issues.”
  • Asian Americans support comprehensive reform that would “include an eventual path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States” by more than a 2-to-1 margin (60% are supportive; 26% opposed; the remainder undecided).

 

Partisanship

 

Partisanship is increasingly the primary refracting lens through which the American public sets its opinions on issues like immigration. For Asian Americans, however, the 2014 Asian American Election Eve Poll shows less of a polarizing role of partisanship on immigration.

 

  • The salience of immigration as “the most important” issue facing Asian Americans is comparable between Democrats (12% mention immigration), Republicans (15%), and non-partisans (13%).
  • Immigration is also mentioned as a “most important” issue in Asian Americans’ vote choices at comparable levels between Democrats (15%), Republicans (14%), and non-partisans (17%). These differences for both general salience and electoral salience are within the poll’s margin of error.
  • The biggest differences are on comprehensive reform and a pathway to citizenship. Here support among Asian American Democrats is quite one-sided (76% support it; 17% are opposed; the remainder undecided). Yet even among non-Democrats, supporters of comprehensive reform outnumber opponents; for Republicans, 47% are supportive, 34% opposed, and 19% undecided; for non-partisans, 51% are supportive, 33% opposed, and 16% undecided.

 

A Few Final Thoughts

 

This week’s announcement from the White House is, on a long view, merely the latest thrust in an enduring and deeply partisan joust on immigration reform. How the Republican-led legislative branch will now parry back and what consequences that will hold for the future of comprehensive reform and the 2016 elections remains to be seen. What is evident is that President Obama, even more forcefully than with his 2012 executive order on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, has taken the offensive. Whether his actions are driven by principled politics or a cold electoral calculus, Asian Americans – as a growing segment of the electorate that is overwhelmingly immigrant, strongly supports comprehensive reform, and already approves of the President’s job performance at rates that comfortably exceed that of the general public – are likely to welcome the President’s initiative.


 

Dr. Taeku Lee is Managing Director of Asian American Decisions, and Professor of Political Science and Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a renowned expert on racial and ethnic politics, Asian American politics and policy, opinion polling and survey research, and election law and political participation.