Latinos now view immigration as their leading concern along with the economy in what activists say is a major shift most likely driven by controversy over Arizona's tough law against illegal immigrants.
Nearly a third of Latinos also believe that racism and prejudice are the central issue in the immigration debate, over national security, job competition and costs of public services for illegal immigrants, according to a national survey released Wednesday.
The poll of 504 Latinos, stratified by region, gender, age, foreign-born status and other factors, was conducted by LatinoMetrics from May 26 to June 8 for the Hispanic Federation and the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC.
The poll found that the vast majority of those surveyed strongly opposed the new Arizona law and strongly supported an immigration policy overhaul providing for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and deportation of felons. Republican Latinos showed similar views on these issues as Democrats and independents.
The Arizona law, which is scheduled to take effect July 29, requires police to determine the status of people they lawfully stop who they suspect are in the country illegally and makes it a misdemeanor to lack proper immigration documents. The Justice Department recently joined several other organizations in suing Arizona to block enforcement of the law.
"This new poll demonstrates a tremendous shift in the importance that immigration has become for a wide cross-section of the Latino population of the United States," Brent Wilkes, LULAC's executive director, said in a statement. "Latinos have taken offense to the way immigrants have been demonized by politicians and political interest groups and are prepared to vote accordingly."
Activists believe that frustration over the immigration issue will unify and galvanize Latinos of all political stripes into voting in November. The poll showed that 80% of those surveyed said they planned to vote in the midterm election and that two-thirds would back candidates who supported an immigration overhaul.
Four in 10 Latinos surveyed said they would not forgive a politician or party who did not work hard enough for change in immigration policy. Arnoldo Torres, an independent political consultant in Sacramento and onetime advisor to the League of United Latin American Citizens, said that finding carried warnings for both major parties.
"The more strident the Republican Party is, they should not anticipate Hispanics will be voting for them in national or congressional elections," Torres said. "But the reality is that neither party is working hard enough for immigration reform, so both parties will suffer."
The poll results mirror the findings of another new poll of 1,600 Latinos in four states conducted for the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund in June. The results, which will be released next week, also shows immigration topping the list of Latino concerns, according to Arturo Vargas, the group's executive director.
Vargas said that immigration has usually ranked fourth or fifth on the list of Latino concerns, after the economy, education and healthcare. In a December poll by LatinoMetrics, twice as many Latinos cited the economy as their top concern compared with immigration.
"We've never seen this before," he said about the widespread concern over immigration. "Latinos are feeling less optimistic and more under siege."
Vargas said he was particularly concerned by poll data suggesting that Arizona-type laws could endanger public safety. About 30% said they would be less likely to report minor crimes, and about 20% said they would be less likely to report major crimes in the face of such laws.
The poll also found that 45% of Arizona Latinos surveyed had decreased attendance at community festivals and street fairs. About a third reported they did not attend as many Latino concerts and sporting events and rode less frequently in vehicles with other Latinos.