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Immigration has become a generational issue for Arizona voters

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The White House is asking Congress for more than $13 billion to deal with border issues. This comes as a group of Democratic mayors is urging President Biden to help them deal with a dramatic increase of migrants who've ended up in their cities. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid recently traveled to Arizona, where the proximity to the border means immigration is at the top of many voters' minds. Hey, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Arizona's also a critical battleground state that Democrats and Republicans both want to win in 2024. So how does immigration figure into voters' thinking there?

KHALID: Well, Ari, I wanted to come here because of what's known as the cultural generation gap. I learned about this term from a demographer at the Brookings Institution. This is the gap between younger people, who are more likely to be brown, more likely to vote for the Democratic Party, and older voters over the age of 65, who are more likely to be white and vote for Republican candidates. Here's the Brookings expert, Bill Frey.

BILL FREY: We've seen Arizona in the last several elections move toward Democratic victories - for Joe Biden and for the recent elections, the governor and the senator - a state that had been generally red. And that says a lot about the changing demography of the younger part of the population of Arizona making a big impact on what's going on.

KHALID: This is happening all over the country, but it's magnified in Arizona more so than anywhere else, where he says 78% of seniors are white, but only 37% of children in the state are white. It's a stark divide. And I wanted to hear voters' unvarnished thoughts about immigration. So I went to Maricopa County in Arizona. It's home to Phoenix. It's a rapidly growing county, and that's because it's a mix of immigrants and retirees - retirees like Frank Rizzo.

FRANK RIZZO: We're affected very much here in Arizona with the illegal population. They're just, you know, pouring across the border, and they're inundating the small cities. There's just not enough services to help these people.

KHALID: Rizzo is president of a local Republican club in one of the retirement communities around here. His message was echoed by other older voters, who praised the border wall and expressed fears that terrorists could be entering. I met Carl Johnson at a Republican rally with his wife, June.

CARL JOHNSON: For people to come across with no control, no background checks, just able to walk across...

JUNE: It's a real insult because when I came over, you had to be perfect to get in this country.

KHALID: June, 86, said she moved from England when John F. Kennedy was president.

JUNE: Anybody and everybody is coming in now. And President Trump said it best. He said, the best people don't leave their countries. When they're doing well in their countries, they don't leave. But criminals do.

KHALID: But young Arizonans like Viri Hernandez hear rhetoric like this, and it sounds absurd.

VIRI HERNANDEZ: There's a huge divide. I mean, you're talking about Latino children who grew up under the terror of their families being hunted.

KHALID: She remembers being terrified that her mom could be swept up and deported in raids. It was a time when Arizona had some of the nation's most hardline immigration laws. Many voters came of age in this era.

HERNANDEZ: Specifically, young people who then dedicated our lives to fight back. And now we're running organizations. And we've ran some of the most expansive voter registration drives.

KHALID: Many young Latino voters say this last decade of immigration rhetoric and policy has mobilized them. Xenia Orona is one of them.

XENIA ORONA: You don't survive that without it affecting your psyche, without it affecting your politics and your worldview.

KHALID: Orona was born in the U.S. but comes from a family of immigrants. Younger voters, who tend to be Democratic, have more personal ties, often, to immigration. And when Arona talks about the border, her descriptions are wildly different from the Republicans I met. Where they talked about a, quote, "open border," she says...

ORONA: Our border is over-militarized, and it's a fabricated problem. It's a false system of barriers in that it's creating a backlog of folks, and it's fabricating the humanitarian situation.

SHAPIRO: That's reporting from NPR's Asma Khalid, who is still with us. And, Asma, it sounds like the people you met are describing polar opposite views of the border.

KHALID: Indeed they are. I spoke with Arizona pollster Paul Bentz, and he told me that independent voters - they make up about a third of the electorate in Arizona - are really key in how people win elections. And for this group, unlike Republicans, immigration is not the No. 1 priority.

PAUL BENTZ: When we've done polling on immigration reform, for example, we have found that there is a large majority of the electorate that wants to secure the border. But we also see that there is a significant portion that would like to see reform, including a pathway to citizenship.

SHAPIRO: So to bring us back to 2024, how is immigration going to factor into the strategy?

KHALID: You know, I talked to a pollster with the DNC, and he said the lane for Democrats and Biden is to talk about border security as an investment that needs more resources. This is an approach that aims to keep the base intact while not alienating people in the middle. But I will say Biden is starting from a place where a lot of Americans seem dissatisfied. You've seen that in the polls in terms of how people disapprove of how he has handled immigration.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Asma Khalid. Thanks for your reporting.

KHALID: Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.