Arizona Latinos weigh disappointment with Trump and Biden, especially on the border

Arizona Latinos weigh disappointment with Trump and Biden, especially on the border

Polling shows that Latino voters broadly say that former President Donald Trump would do a better job securing the border than President Joe Biden. And a new focus group of Latino voters in Arizona who are frustrated with both major party nominees illustrated why the border has become such a political mess for Biden.

Trump’s tough talk on the border, and the actions he took as president, did not come close to winning unilateral praise from the dozen participants in the latest NBC News Deciders Focus Group series, produced in collaboration with Engagious, Syracuse University and Sago. The focus group specifically recruited participants who had soured on both Biden and Trump, an important swing cohort.

But from their vantage point, as key voters in a pivotal border state, more of the participants preferred Trump’s clarity on the issue compared to what many saw as a struggle by Biden to control immigration and secure the border — and, more broadly, to follow through on lofty 2020 campaign promises.

“I just feel like there’s not a clear, concise plan. There’s just this hot mess of: ‘Oh, we want people to come over, we don’t want people to come over.’” said Nicole G., a 39-year-old woman from Glendale who felt so negative about both major party candidates she currently backs independent Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Overall, eight of the 12 focus group participants said that Trump would do better than Biden on the border, while only three chose Biden and one wouldn’t choose. The consensus among the panel was that the border would remain a top emphasis for Trump and that, even if his policies could be harsh, he sent a clear message to those trying to cross the border illegally.

“His policies were more strict,” Melissa G., a 43-year-old from Phoenix said of the former president’s approach to the border. She said she would vote for Kennedy if given the chance, but Trump if not.

“We see the results of what’s going on now with Biden,” she continued, adding: “Droves of immigrants coming over. I don’t particularly think that one was better than the other, but I do feel like there does need to be more stricter rules.”

Enrique M., a 48-year-old from San Tan Valley who would vote for Trump, argued that migrants “self-deported” during Trump’s presidency due to his policies and tone.

“There’s this assumption that he’s not welcoming, he does not like migrants. So people, just by him being elected, [will say]: ‘Well, we’re not going to go to the States because we’re not welcome there,’” he said. He added: “There are plenty of laws, but the administration tells the people that enforce those laws whether to enforce them or to turn a blind eye. I believe he would encourage them to enforce those laws.”

Polling continues to suggest that immigration is among the top issues for voters broadly across the country, though it is typically not as big a focus as the economy (depending on how polls lump the issues together). Immigration was virtually tied with inflation and cost of living among the top issues in the April NBC News national poll. A May survey by The New York Times and Siena College found immigration tied in second with abortion, behind the economy, as the most important issues to Arizona voters as they make their 2024 choice.

And a late March CNBC national poll found Trump with a 30-point edge with registered voters on the question of which nominee would handle immigration and border security better, including a 23-point edge among Latino voters.

“When you listen to these respondents complain about what they see as Biden’s ineffective border policy, which they view as part of a larger pattern of presidential inertia, you start to grasp why he is struggling to win over Hispanic Americans as compared to 2020,” said Rich Thau, president of Engagious, who moderated the sessions.

Meanwhile, less than six months out from Election Day in one of the most competitive states in the nation, not a single participant said they’ve seen any meaningful outreach from either the Trump or Biden campaigns.

The few who preferred Biden’s approach to the issue framed him as more compassionate — meshing with NBC News’ late January polling, which found registered voters overwhelmingly saying Trump would do better at “securing the border and controlling immigration” but giving Biden a significant edge on the question of “treating immigrants humanely and protecting immigrant rights.”

Even those who didn’t prefer Biden on the broader issue of handling the border and immigration agreed with that diagnosis of his approach — nine of the 12 respondents said Biden would treat migrants more humanely than Trump.

“He’d be better because he’s tried to expedite the process for the asylum-seekers,” Kasia C-V., a 27-year-old from Avondale who said she’d vote for Biden, said of the current president. “I just think he would view the situation with a little bit more compassion than just being ‘anti-immigration, no exceptions, you don’t belong.’”

As politicians weigh how to prioritize securing the border with finding a solution for the millions of undocumented people in America, seven said the former was more important, while four chose the latter.

More participants blamed Biden than Trump for the lack of a compromise on the issue. Those who chose Trump criticized him for sinking deals for political reasons, while those who pointed the finger at Biden said that he has fallen flat as president after arguing that his experience in politics would help break through partisan gridlock in Washington.

“There’s so many times where I tune into the news, and there are bills getting passed, and either I always hear that Trump doesn’t like a certain part of the bill, and then just rejects it all,” said Manny R., a 24-year-old from Mesa who currently says he won’t vote in the fall.

“He promised to do a lot for [the] border,” Melissa G. said. “Even if we disagree with the way Trump went about specific things with his border control, he did something, at least, about it.”

But even among those who support Trump or his approach to the border, one signature piece of his plan fell flat: his border wall.

Only one person said they’d like to see Trump finish the wall, with the rest arguing it was a waste of money and ineffective.

“Most of the illegal immigrants in our country overstay their work visas, they’re not coming through the southern border. And most of the drugs that are being brought into our country are not coming through the southern border, they’re being brought through legal ports. So it just seems [like] nonsense,” Kasia said.

Margaret Talev, the director of Syracuse University’s Institute for Democracy, Journalism & Citizenship in Washington, told NBC she was “struck” with the consistent views blaming Biden for a lack of compromise, even as Biden criticizes Trump for recently shooting down a bipartisan border deal.

“They view Biden as failing to take actions at the border — and they credit Trump with trying to take action even if they disagreed with many of the actions themselves. Trump’s promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico may be his best known plan — these voters panned the idea and don’t want him to try again if he’s re-elected — yet they don’t hold it against him,” she added.

An important decision on abortion looms

Arizona will have more than the presidential candidates on the ballot this fall. Voters there will also decide whether to incorporate a “fundamental right” to abortion care into the state constitution, amid a tumultuous stretch for abortion laws in the state.

In April, the state Supreme Court ruled that Arizona’s near-total ban on abortion dating from 1864 was still in effect, instead of the 15-week ban that had been passed in 2022. Earlier this month, Arizona legislators repealed that ban and, with the governor’s signature, the 15-week ban is now the law of the land. The voter-led ballot measure would expand that significantly.

Few focus group participants displayed a clear understanding of the current abortion laws in the state — many still believe abortion is illegal in Arizona, and many admitted they are uncertain about what the law actually is.

Eight said that they would vote for the constitutional amendment to protect abortion rights in the state, significantly more than those who said they’d back Biden, who has made protecting access to abortion the centerpiece of his presidential campaign. (Read on for more about how the participants are wrestling with their presidential vote.)

“In the field that I work in, I see a lot of mothers who are faced with decisions when the babies have lethal anomalies. And I don’t think it’s right to not give them a choice to end that pregnancy because there’s severe psychological damages to go on with a pregnancy that is not viable,” said Michelle A., a 39-year-old from Laveen who would back Green Party candidate Jill Stein if given the option, but Biden if not.

Even those who leaned more conservative, either on the issue or abortion or otherwise, showed sympathy toward the amendment and even a possible interest in voting to protect abortion rights.

Enrique M., the Trump voter, repeatedly criticized those who supported “infanticide” but wouldn’t commit to even voting on the amendment either way, as he wrestled with how to weigh his own personal beliefs with a concern about restricting the rights of others.

“I’m going to teach my daughters what I believe is correct, and hopefully they abide by that. But at the end of the day, they’re going to do what they’re going to do. Right? And do I want them to go to jail because they violated that? Probably not,” he said.

Melissa G., who said she’d back Kennedy if given the chance and Trump if not, also said she’s “on the fence” because of similar concerns.

“I understand that the fetus is not viable prior to that, but I also see what my religion teaches about that,” she said. “The biggest consequence we see is having our rights taken from us, and that’s a huge right for women. So I think once we give into one, it can easily be anything else. And so, once we see that happening, it’s a scary thought for us Americans to basically hand that decision over to others.”

How the issue will factor into other choices by these voters is more complicated. Only a handful said it would be a big factor in who they vote for in November — after struggling with how she’d vote on the abortion measure, Melissa G. said it could be a mistake if Democrats and Biden are “assuming most Americans’ stance on abortion is that vital.”

Interest in RFK, but will it last?

Another common thread among these voters, who say they dislike both Trump and Biden, is an openness to voting for Kennedy and, to a lesser extent, Stein.

In a head-to-head between Biden and Trump, five said they’d pick Biden, three chose Trump, and four said they wouldn’t vote. When the choices were expanded to include Kennedy, Stein and activist Cornel West, two Trump voters and one Biden voter changed their vote to Kennedy, two Biden voters changed their vote to Stein, and two people who said they wouldn’t vote chose Kennedy.

Kennedy led the five-way contest among these voters, who all said they disliked both Biden and Trump. Kennedy had five votes, followed by a tie with Biden and Stein at two, one vote for Trump and two who said they wouldn’t vote.

The Kennedy-curious largely didn’t show a deep familiarity with his policy platforms, instead pointing to his family legacy.

Ruben M., a 57-year-old from Gilbert who moved from Biden to Kennedy when given the chance, pointed to his “family history of being in politics.”

Melissa G., a 43-year-old from Phoenix who moved from Trump to Kennedy when given the opportunity, echoed that point.

“It’s really just past history, a family history for him, basically what his uncle did for our country,” she said. “I haven’t really looked up his policies, but based on who we have, I would lean toward him.”

And Aysaiah D., a 26-year old from Peoria who moved from Trump to Kennedy when given the option, said that Kennedy “seemed very, very knowledgeable on our U.S. history from the ‘60s up until now” in a recent interview he watched. He added that he thought Kennedy walked the “the line really well between not being too conservative, not being too democratic.”

Their lack of deep convictions about Kennedy makes it unclear whether they’ll actually stick with him and vote for him in November, if he’s able to make it onto the ballot. What is clear is that these voters are not happy with the choices they face in November.

“I definitely would not be voting for Biden — he doesn’t match up with any of my beliefs,” Nicole G. said. She said she “had a really hard time voting for” Trump in 2016 and ultimately did because he “lined up with a lot of our beliefs and morals and values as a family” and she hoped he would grow into the office.

“And then as a president, I was ashamed that I had voted for him,” Nicole G. continued. “He’s a reckless leader that should never be in leadership, so there’s no way I can vote for him again.”

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