What Voters Really Want for Immigration and Public Safety Reform

What Voters Really Want for Immigration and Public Safety Reform

When it comes to immigration and public safety, Republican and Democratic platforms have become virtually indistinguishable. Both sides are espousing a narrative that calls for harsher policies, more enforcement, and increased incarceration. Candidates have bought into the idea that to win votes, they must lean into “toughness.”

So how did we get here? Extremist candidates currently control the narrative on both issues and are weaponizing Americans’ fears to win support. These extremist candidates paint a picture of communities under siege and insist the only way to keep families safe is by turning people away who seek safety at the border and putting more people behind bars. They label any candidate who disagrees with this approach as “soft,” “weak,” and “unfit” to address the issues facing our communities.

New ACLU polling shows, however, that despite all the fearmongering in American politics, voters want something completely different. Our survey showed that in battleground states, Congressional districts, and across the nation, when it comes to immigration and public safety voters want solutions that address the root causes of both issues – not calls for more punishment. Our research, coupled with recent surveys from other leading organizations, clearly shows taking a page out of the MAGA playbook is a liability – not a winning strategy.

Here’s what you need to know.

Voters’ policy choices are far more effective than the punishment-focused policies candidates propose.

“Tough on crime” and “tough on immigration” policies don’t make us any safer, and instead, only exacerbate many of the underlying issues of both. For instance, inhumane policies that illegally limit who can ask for asylum force vulnerable people to wait in limbo in dangerous conditions for years, leading to further confusion and disorder at the border. Our nation’s overreliance on police and incarceration has disproportionately harmed Black and Brown people, those experiencing addiction and mental health issues, and people who are homeless. It has also perpetuated cycles of harm by saddling people with criminal records that only create additional barriers to success.

Voters understand that more of the same is not the answer, and that it’s past time to tackle the root causes of issues in both areas. Candidates would do well to listen to them, not just to capture votes, but because they’re sound policy solutions.

Leading with humanity and justice is more than good policy – it’s good politics too.

For more than 100 years, the ACLU has consistently fought for policies that advance justice and safeguard our rights. But this work isn’t easy. Even lawmakers who champion of LGBTQ+ rights, protect abortion access, and safeguard democracy can compromise their principles to support harmful immigration and criminal legal policy bills when they believe it’s the only way to win over voters. Here’s the good news: Our research shows that even though voters are concerned about public safety and immigration, they want real solutions that tackle the root causes of both. Conventional political wisdom that assumes when voters are afraid, candidates must lean into toughness, is wrong. Leading with humanity and justice is more than just the right thing to do – it’s politically advantageous.

Voters want fair, humane, and efficient border solutions and a path to citizenship, over cruel, enforcement-only policies.

Recent polling shows that immigration is a top concern for many voters. Yet more than 73 percent of Americans believe that we should not only provide access to the asylum system for people fleeing persecution and violence, but also a road to citizenship for long-term residents and Dreamers.

Rather than extreme partisan politics or cruelty, voters want candidates who champion real solutions. In surveying voters across six congressional battleground districts, 65 percent agreed that the country needs a balanced approach to immigration that both manages the border and provides a path to citizenship for long-term residents, over the idea that it’s either too dangerous or too costly to open up our country to immigrants. Sixty-eight percent of voters in seven key battleground states similarly favor a balanced approach.

Notably, our research shows that when candidates, regardless of party affiliation, adopt a balanced, solutions-focused approach, they outperform their opponents’ fear-based messages. In a national YouGov survey, voters presented with a Republican candidate using a “balanced approach” message against a Democratic candidate’s “tough-on-immigration” message, chose the Republican candidate by 16 points. Similarly, voters presented with a Democratic candidate using a “balanced approached” message against a Republican tough message, chose the balanced approach message by seven points, while the Democratic “tough-on-immigration” approach lost or tied.


Voters want investments in housing and health, not increased police and incarceration.

Although nationwide crime is at historic lows, voters across the political spectrum believe it’s going up — and not just in big cities, but in their own communities. Despite their concerns, voters overwhelmingly want prevention, not punishment. They believe investing in community-based services is the most effective way to foster safety. Nationally, improving access to mental health care as a public safety solution outperforms putting 100,000 more police on the streets by a staggering 26 points.

In some of the toughest Congressional districts across Arizona, California, New Jersey, and Ohio, 59 percent of voters don’t think we can arrest our way out of homelessness, unemployment, and poverty. Instead, they believe investing in services that will treat the root causes of these problems, like affordable housing and job training, is a more effective solution than relying on punishment and incarceration.


Whether it’s a Republican or Democrat espousing a “tough on crime” narrative based on fear, they lose to the candidate offering a response focused on solutions. In two New York battleground congressional districts, both currently held by Republicans, we tested two different frames on crime and public safety against a “tough-on-crime” incumbent. The survey found that the challenger offering solutions like affordable housing, mental health, and addiction treatment performed five points better among all voters. Notably, this candidate won undecided voters by 19 points.

The ACLU is showing candidates there’s no excuse for supporting harmful policies.

With sound proof that voters are eager for real solutions – like those that keep families together, ensure people have access to mental health and addiction treatment, and that invest in solving housing insecurity – there’s no excuse for candidates to fall back on fear.

Our research delivers a clear message for candidates: Voters are hungry for bold, new solutions, not the same old fear-driven tactics. The key to success in 2024’s electoral battlegrounds lies in presenting innovative, solution-focused approaches to immigration and public safety. This research should serve as a wake-up call for candidates who’ve fallen to the idea that to win their elections, they must lean into harsher rhetoric and policies. The opposite is true. Candidates should embrace the electorate’s desire for justice and humanity.

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