The family separation scandal was a turning point for Pennsylvania voters, according to Beatriz Lopez.
White suburban women recoiled at the notion of migrant children being separated from their parents, warehoused and wrapped in thermal blankets. These women were “repelled.”
Lopez knows because she asked.
She works for Immigration Hub, a pro-immigration advocacy group and arm of Laurene Powell Job’s Palo Alto-based Emerson Collective that wants to give advocates and Democrats the information they need to combat Republican attacks on immigration and sway voters.
Ahead of the midterm elections, the organization polled 915 likely voters statewide. Survey-takers asked Democrats, Republicans and Independents about issues like family separation and sanctuary cities, a designation referring to those cities and states with policies barring or limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
The responses provided further insight into how the commonwealth’s voters view immigration policy in the run-up to the Nov. 6 midterms, an election that could fundamentally alter the balance of power in Congress — or maintain the status quo. In hopes of ensuring the former scenario, Immigration Hub is using these polling insights to help congressional Democrats craft an immigration message that preaches to — and reaches — more than just the choir.
Immigration Hub’s polling produced a few key takeaways:
- A set of Republican and moderate voters — mainly white educated women and women of color — were outraged by the president’s enforcement of a policy that allows for separations of families who seek asylum in the U.S. by crossing the border with Mexico illegally.
- A segment of Pennsylvania voters in suburban/rural areas are particularly receptive to political attacks involving sanctuary cities.
But the most useful information for Democrats may be Immigration Hub-gleaned insights on how to best counter those attacks. Typically, Lopez said, this involves making the argument that sanctuary cities aren’t criminal havens or lands of impunity. Beyond that, Lopez added, it means reminding voters that “bread and butter” issues like health care, wages, job opportunity and gun violence are likely more important to them.
“There are voters that we call the vulnerable voters who would likely vote for Sen. Bob Casey [D-Pa.] but once they hear that [sanctuary city] attack it creates doubt,” Lopez told The Incline at a meeting in Downtown Pittsburgh, “and so we’re trying to either neutralize that doubt or persuade them otherwise.”
Immigration Hub came into existence right after the 2016 election and was created to give national immigration advocacy groups and like-minded politicians “the tools and resources to be able to react accordingly to all of these attacks in a rapid response fashion,” Lopez said.
In addition to its polling work, Immigration Hub crafts legislative strategy and provides immigration guidance to members of Congress, Lopez explained.
“The Immigration Hub is trying to develop the right messaging strategy on these types of attacks, particularly on sanctuary cities, because electorally we know it’s going to be used a lot — it’s already being used a lot — to attack friendly members of Congress who are good on immigration and are moving good progressive immigration policies,” she said.
“There hasn’t been time for them to develop good strategy on that, especially on sanctuary cities. Even our best advocates don’t know how to best respond to these attacks.”
With polling data in hand, Lopez said, Immigration Hub can point to potential rebuttals and say, “this will work or this is more likely to work.”
Lopez added, “We’ve been doing digital tests and finding out that more than sanctuary cities voters care about their healthcare; more than sanctuary cities they care about stagnant wages or job opportunities or what’s happening with the opioid epidemic.”
Candidates are urged to pushback on depictions of sanctuary cities as criminal safe zones and to then immediately point to the “slight of hand” being used by Republicans.
“Say, ‘I believe in having tough border security measures, but this guy’s using this to distract from the fact that they’re trying to take your healthcare coverage away and are not providing any job opportunities, etcetera,” Lopez said.
They’re also encouraged to embrace the backlash around family separations.
“Suburban white women are really repelled by what’s happening to these kids. The needle is moving, especially on that issue,” Lopez said. “That issue more than anything is the one that Democrats and others who want to move immigration policy forward can lean into safely. Even more so than Dreamers and the issue of Dreamers.”
The notion of separating children and parents is a visceral one, the empathy gap easier to bridge.
Immigration Hub focused on Pennsylvania because it’s a battleground and home to midterm races where immigration policy was likely to be a factor: Casey v. Barletta, Lamb v. Rothfus, Perry v. Scott, Nothstein v. Wild.
The group polled 915 voters across the commonwealth. That sample includes a base of 800 voters statewide and an oversample of voters from the Pittsburgh media market, not including Democrat-heavy Allegheny County. Overall, 205 voters in this region were interviewed.
G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll, said 915 voters is “absolutely” a statistically significant number. He also said the F&M College Poll has not done its own polling on the issues of family separation and sanctuary cities.
In Colorado, a state where immigration is a similarly potent political force, particularly in the current race for governor, Immigration Hub polled 768 voters.
“When we looked at the populations of Pennsylvania and Colorado, they were representative of other states to us, and it’s really important to be able to figure out what these voters are thinking about immigration and what we need to do to be able to better inform on the issue,” Lopez said.
Another factor in determining which states to focus on? The candidates and the races.
“When we saw that Casey’s challenger might be Barletta, we knew for instance that he would be using immigration as a wedge issue,” Lopez added.
In that race for U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, Barletta has indeed spent plenty of time talking about Casey’s immigration record, but Casey maintains a significant lead in the polls. Barletta, a politician long associated with crackdowns on undocumented immigrants and scorched-earth rhetoric on the subject, has been a champion of President Donald Trump’s approach to immigration policy and is running with the president’s endorsement.
“We’ve seen some of their material that’s been released publicly,” Max Steele, a spokesman for Casey’s campaign, said when asked if they’ve seen or utilized Immigration Hub data. Steele said Casey also recently attended the Emerson Collective-sponsored “Carne y Arena” exhibition, an Oscar-winning virtual reality film based on immigrants’ true accounts of traveling to the U.S.
Steele then pointed to Casey’s own record on immigration in saying of Barletta’s criticism, “We’re confident we can win that fight.” Barletta’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
In western Pa., the race for the new 17th congressional district between Democratic U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and Republican U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus has also produced sanctuary city-based attack ads aimed at undermining Lamb in the GOP-leaning district. But Lamb, like Casey, holds a commanding lead. Spokespeople for Lamb did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
Mike Barley, a spokesperson for Rothfus’ campaign, said by email that voter concerns about immigration may run deeper than groups like Immigration Hub are letting on.
“I think it is incredibly difficult, especially in rural areas, for voters to get over the sanctuary city issue,” Barley said. “They don’t believe those cities should receive government funding if they are knowingly breaking the law.”
Immigration Hub said its polling confirmed as much. But the organization also thinks that some of those voters can be persuaded.
Of course, whether messaging or counter-messaging will work or not depends on the voter receiving it. For some, the family separation issue has tipped the scales.
For others, it’s arguments touting the economic contributions of immigrants, undocumented and otherwise, that resonate most.
And for others still, no amount of debate will sway them. Lopez knows this. Immigration Hub knows this and focuses instead on those moveable voters — Independents, moderates, and undecideds — who might vote for a candidate like Casey if given the right justification or perspective.
If that perspective exists, Immigration Hub will find it and share it.
“It’s for the advocacy world as much as it’s for candidates,” Lopez said.
The “why” of it all involves an effort to shape immigration policy at a crucial moment for the nation and certainly for its immigrants. Lopez said the stakes could not be higher.
“We’re under attack. Period. Immigrant families are under attack.”