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Obama’s Immigration Problem in Patchwork Nation

Immigration Reform Leaders Arrested in Washington DC; Photo by Arasmus Photo on Flickr/Creative CommonsIn a country as complex as diverse as the United States, there aren’t many issues that cut the same way everywhere. Some places may be strongly opposed, say to free trade, while others tend to be more supportive. Patchwork Nation sees and notes these differences regularly.

In 2010, however, immigration, or at least the White House approach to it, looks like it might be a rare case where there is uniformity.

Results from a recent poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and Press, broken down in Patchwork Nation’s county types, show there is little support for “the way Barack Obama is handling the nation’s immigration policy” across all the 12 community types that make up the Patchwork Nation map.

The county types that have been strongholds for President Obama — the big city Industrial Metropolis and collegiate Campus and Careers counties — “disapprove” of administration’s immigration strategies. The places that largely oppose him — the conservative Evangelical Epicenters and Tractor Country counties — are strongly against it. And there appears to be large opposition to the president’s plans in two community types that have large numbers of Latinos — Immigration Nation and Boom Towns counties.

What is driving those numbers? A lot of it may be the Obama administration’s uncertainty on immigration policy.

No Real Plan, No Real Friends

The Obama team has been somewhat uncomfortable in its approach on how to handle the issue — more troops on the border along (angering some on the left) with a lawsuit against Arizona’s new tougher law (angering many on the right) while also delaying a comprehensive reform plan — and, perhaps as a result, no one is especially happy with the White House’s path.

None of the 12 county types gives the administration an overall “approval” on immigration policy, and that is a rare feat. Even on two of the biggest bits of bad news in the nation, the economy and the oil spill in the Gulf, Obama at least still has the support of the Industrial Metro counties in the Pew results.

Immigration is one of those issues, however, where the fault lines lie in many different places — and in communities one might not expect.

Last year, we sat in on a constituent meeting with Rep. Steve King in Sioux Center, Iowa — a Tractor Country community — and were amazed that half the question time was devoted to illegal immigration, with most of it spent of talk of the need for a bigger and stronger wall at the border. In 2008, we sat in on a Democratic platform drafting meeting on Chicago’s South Side and heard concern from blacks in the group about how the Spanish-speaking population was changing the community. Many there wanted tighter restrictions, too.

Troubles in Immigration Nation

But the issue probably most directly impacts daily life in the nation’s 200-plus Immigration Nation counties, where illegal immigrants often make up a good-sized part of the population. In these counties some 73 percent “disapprove” of the administration’s handling of the immigration issue.

That’s a very high number and it must be troubling to the administration for a few reasons.

First, the voters in Immigration Nation sided with Obama by four percentage points in 2008 (51 percent versus 47 percent for Sen. John McCain). That support has clearly been shaken. Second, of all the county types in Patchwork Nation, these places are probably the most attuned to the administration’s effort in immigration — and clearly they are not pleased.

It’s not easy to categorize the attitudes on this issue in Immigration Nation. Our contacts in El Mirage, Ariz., an Immigration Nation community, themselves have a mixed reactions to the debate.

Our Latino contacts there clearly despise the new Arizona immigration law – and fear what it may mean even for legal immigrants – but many have uneasy feelings about the illegal friends and neighbors they have who skirted the law to enter the country.

But remember not everyone in Immigration Nation is a Latino, there are many Anglos as well and they often take a much harder line on the immigration. El Mirage is part of Maricopa County, the home of well-known illegal immigration hardliner Sheriff Joe Arpaio who has been re-elected four times since first winning the job in 1992.

So far, anyway, it seems the administration’s approach has done little to win over either side in Immigration Nation. Its current lack of a strategy has left both side wondering what comes next.

Of course, no one expects President Obama to come out with a hard-line position on illegal immigration, but there is a considerable gray area in which to move and where the administration ultimately moves will mean a lot, particularly in these Immigration Nation counties.

And it may mean a lot in November. Immigration Nation counties, on the whole, tend to split their votes between Democrats and Republicans fairly closely. And if you look at the Patchwork Nation map you will see they are concentrated in states like Arizona, California and Colorado – all of which have big senate and governor’s races this year.

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