Politics Counts: Obama’s Immigration Strategy and Low-Income Workers

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.), right, speaks with Lenka Mendoza of Dumfries, Va., who is originally from Peru, during a rally in support of executive action on immigration, Nov. 19, 2014, in front of the White House. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Associated Press

Dante Chinni writes Politics Counts as a regular Capital Journal feature. Mr. Chinni is the director of the American Communities Project at American University, which examines different types of communities across the U.S.

President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration may strengthen his support among  Hispanic voters but hurt  him among one of his most reliable blocs, low-income Americans, the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll suggests.

Voters with household incomes below $30,000 are generally among the president’s most loyal backers. In this latest poll, those voters still give Mr. Obama a positive job approval rating – 50% approve versus 43% who do not approve.  Overall, the president’s approval ratings are the opposite: Only 44% approve of his performance while 50% disapprove.

But on the issue of executive action on immigration reform, voters from those lower-income homes are far less supportive. Only 36% of people in households that earn less than $30,000 say they support Mr. Obama using an executive order to address illegal immigration. That was tied with one other income group for the lowest number on that question.

Immigration reform in general seems troublesome to lower-income Americans, and the executive order looks particularly irksome. The survey address the issue of illegal immigration with three different questions: The first (above) on executive action, the second focused on giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship and the third added caveats that included illegal immigrants paying fines and going through background checks.

On every question, those in the lowest income group were the least supportive.

What’s driving that split? Without more polling specifically on that question no one can say for certain. But low-income voters may be concerned that the sudden legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants could flood the labor market, creating stiff competition for low-wage jobs.

Mr. Obama’s executive order is reportedly aimed at shielding up to five million illegal immigrants from deportation. There are an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

The WSJ/NBC News poll also shows low-income Americans already have a wide range of everyday economic concerns that run deeper than the concerns of the public at large, including the cost of gasoline and groceries. They are less concerned about issues like stock market performance and student loans. The numbers suggest any downward pressure on their income hits them in crucial areas.

It’s hard to gauge what the long-term impact of Mr. Obama’s executive actions could be with low-income voters. It could be that whatever Mr. Obama winds up proposing doesn’t affect them as much as they believe it might.

And even if low-income voters were disappointed they may find it difficult to go somewhere else with their votes. They seem to be fairly strongly opposed to Republicans. Mr. Obama won 63% of the less-than-$30,000 vote in 2012 and Democrats won 59% of that vote in the national 2014 exit polls.

But the president’s executive action could tamp down the number of low-income voters who show up on Election Day, which Democratic analysts have noted was crucial to the party’s poor showing this year.

At the very least, the numbers suggest that immigration reform and, specifically, Mr. Obama’s proposed executive action, may splinter an important part of the Democratic coalition.


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