Public Attitudes Toward Immigration and Responses to Trump’s DACA Moves in the Texas GOP

While the country continues to try to make sense of Donald Trump’s herky jerky series of moves on DACA – it’s rescinded so it’s up to Congress to do something..but if they don’t, he..might...or maybe Chuck and Nancy will help out on it after this budget thing is taken care of – the political landscape in Texas looks comparatively predictable. 

The public responses among Texas’ political leadership and in the interest group universe largely reflect the sharp cleavage between Democratic and Republican voters on issues related to immigration, as well as conveying the more subtle divisions among different groups in the GOP coalition. 

It’s a pretty widely accepted fact – if one that’s sort of uncomfortable in more genteel corners of the Republican establishment – that there is, as The New York Times put it today, “a fiercely anti-immigration current running through the Republican Party.” Whether one explains it from a law-and-order perspective or as a resurgence of nativism, the salience of immigration among Texas Republicans, and their punitive attitudes, have been well-documented over several years of University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling. It’s worth noting again that while punitive attitudes toward undocumented immigrants is somewhat more prevalent among Tea Party identifiers within the Republican Party, the same attitudes are only somewhat less prevalent and less intense among non-tea party Republicans. One measure of these attitudes in the UT/TT poll asks Texas voters: "Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: Undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States should be deported immediately."

Loading chart...
categoryDemocratRepublicanTea Party
Strongly agree9%34%40%
Somewhat agree10%33%36%
Somewhat disagree21%21%12%
Strongly disagree53%7%10%
Don't know/No opinion6%5%3%

The idea, per Rick Perry c. 2011, that there might be more compassion among Republicans toward those that are the intended beneficiaries of the portion of Obama-era protections that were left standing prior to Tuesday’s announcement, gets some support from the result of the Texas Lyceum Poll of Texas adults in 2015. When asked: "As you may know, the Department of Justice was recently ordered to stop the deportation of any undocumented immigrant youth who attends college or serves in the military and to provide them with a legal work permit that is renewable. Do you support or oppose this policy? Would that be strongly or somewhat?" The results look like this:

2015 Texas Lyceum Poll of Texas Adults: "As you may know, the Department of Justice was recently ordered to stop the deportation of any undocumented immigrant youth who attends college or serves in the military and to provide them with a legal work permit that is renewable. Do you support or oppose this policy? Would that be strongly or somewhat?"
  Overall Republicans Independents Democrats
Support 65% 53% 60% 81%
Oppose 28% 38% 29% 17%
Don't know 7% 8% 11% 2%

At first blush, the results here look sufficiently tempered to help understand why the Austin American Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove might have been asking a slightly more than rhetorical question in today’s  “First Reading”:

Why is Gov. Greg Abbott, who has proved to be so emotionally available and sensitive as Texans have suffered through the trauma and dislocations of Harvey, so emotionally distant toward the 120,000 Texans who may face the trauma and dislocation of the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA? 

Thinking about the governor’s responses to these questions on the network and cable news shows Sunday, one might do better to gauge the governor’s responses more on the scale of directness rather than empathy (though of course we are big supporters of the latter as a quality). The message was intended to frame this as a contrast with President Obama, a matter of Congress finally acting rather than an imperious executive violating the Constitution, as the excerpt below from Abbott’s widely covered comments on Fox illustrate:

By contrast, see Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s appearance on Fox News Business, in which the Lt. Governor makes a brief feint toward empathy, but gets right to the point, saying that “we have to have order on our border, we have have the wall, we have to have security.” In contrast to the Abbott clip, in which the Governor veers away from the host's question to the institutionally-framed message, host Stuart Varney has to work to cue the Lt. Governor in that direction. 

The Governor's approach was an effort in redirection found in other Republicans' attempts over the last 48 hours to frame their positions as a matter of respect for the separation of powers and the rule of law, rather than a lack of empathy. The hed of Tilove’s post doesn’t have a question mark, and the rest of the blog points toward the politics of the situation, including public opinion from the state’s leading public poll as well as reference to the possibility that Abbott learned from the response to Perry’s soulful moment in the 2011 GOP nomination campaign. (ICYMI: “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart.”) (We don't discount the possibility that Tilove approached it this way because he really wanted to include his pics of the Governor "cuddling a puppy" during the Wimberly floods in 2015.)

While some polling shows hints of GOP softening when it comes to ostensibly more sympathetic groups like the DACA recipients, it will be hard for Republican incumbents looking at reelection to count on Republican voters giving them a pass on a vote to reconstitute some form of Congressionally-sanctioned DACA protections. Trump has raised the expectations of Republican voters for whom immigration is a very salient issue, and that Lyceum poll of Texans was conducted well before Trump's election (and among Texas adults – not GOP primary voters). Expectations among GOP voters that their will reps hold the line will only be hardened by the deeply partisan responses of Democrats to the las DACA moves. (As James Hohman argues in today's Daily 202 in the Washington Post, the passage of political time has also shifted politics in the Democratic Party into a more monolithic position, evident in Democratic responses.) Positions have hardened on both sides, and in Texas, as the politics of the anti-Sanctuary cities legislation illustrated during the legislative session, this is an issue that GOP lawmakers who might be skeptical of the wisdom of DACA repeal are unlikely to take a risk on. Passing the flamboyantly Draconian SB 4 gave Republicans across the spectrum an ace-in-the-hole to play in the upcoming primaries, wherever they publicly (and more often privately) came down on bathrooms. Given what every GOP elected official knows about immigration attitudes among Republican primary voters, it’s a dream to expect them to squander that political capital in the name of empathy – or anything else.