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While analysts try to make sense of the political implications of the ongoing Republican presidential primary dustup over immigration, conventional wisdom seems to be that Republican voters are relentlessly hard line on immigration matters. Polls that present false choices over immigration only serve to confirm that analysis. However, numerous polls conducted by a variety of reputable organizations make it clear that Republican voters’ views – and all Americans’ views on immigration – are far more nuanced than that.
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:
When public opinion researchers dig deep into the views of voters regarding illegal immigration, the majority of all voters, including the majority of Republican voters, wants a ‘both/and’ approach – one that combines a path to legal status and citizenship for the undocumented with strong enforcement. Indeed, that’s the entire point of comprehensive immigration reform – to combine smart enforcement with earned citizenship so that a dysfunctional system is transitioned into a legal and orderly one. The bottom line is that voters want Washington to figure out how to walk and chew gum at the same time. The commonly-held notion that most Republicans are rabid anti-immigrant zealots is simply false.
Below are some recent assessments of public opinion on immigration, with a particular focus on Republican audiences.
According to Pew Research Center polling in May 2011, the vast majority of the public and the majority of Republicans support both an earned path to citizenship and stronger border security. When asked directly about the question of the moment in the Republican race – what to do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants – respondents are in favor of legal status and citizenship: “Thinking about illegal immigration in the United States, do you favor or oppose providing a way for illegal immigrants currently in the country to gain legal citizenship if they pass background checks, pay fines, and have jobs?” By a 72%-24% margin overall, voters support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently in the United States.
When broken up by political typology, of the two Republican-heavy groups, Main Street Republicans support a path to citizenship 58%-39% while staunch conservatives are split 49%-49. Of swing groups, Libertarians support it 66%-32%, while Democrats support it 80%-12%. When the same voters are asked if they support stronger enforcement of immigration laws and border security, they say yes by a margin of 78%-19%, with both Main Street Republicans and staunch conservatives strongly in favor. The point is that all voters, including the majority of Republicans, support a “both/and” rather than an “either/or approach.
New poll from Latino Decisions shows Republicans favor policies that allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. over deportation by more than a 2-1 margin. Latino Decisions polling for Univision in November 2011 found several insightful ways to capture voters’ nuanced positions. The pollsters asked voters, “which comes closest to your view about what government policy should be toward undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States? Should the government…Make all undocumented immigrants felons and send them back to their home country, Have a guest worker program that allows immigrants to remain in the United States in order to work, but only for a limited amount of time, or Allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States and eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship, but only if they meet certain requirements like paying back taxes and fines, learning English, and passing a background check?” Overwhelmingly, the public – including Republicans – favored the path to citizenship option: 58% of all voters, including 53% of Republican voters, supported the path to citizenship option, 13% of all voters and 13% of Republicans who favored the guest worker option, and only 25% of all voters and 30% of Republicans who favored the deportation and felony option and only. In sum, Republicans favor policies that allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. over deportation by 66% to 30%.
Fox News Channel poll shows Republicans support a “both/and” approach. In an August 2010 Fox poll, Opinion Dynamics found the following: “Do you favor or oppose giving illegal immigrants who pay taxes and obey the law a second chance and allowing them to stay in the United States?” All voters favored allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. by a margin of 68%-27%; Republicans favored it 63%-33%. “Thinking about the issue of immigration, do you think the federal government’s top priority should be securing the country’s borders, or passing new immigration legislation, or should both be done at the same time?” All voters favored securing the border first by a margin of 21%-7% over passing new immigration legislation, but 68% favored doing both simultaneously; Republicans favored securing the border first by 28%-4% over new legislation, but 65% favored doing both simultaneously. Again, when presented with the option of enforcement and path to legal status, the majority of all voters and the majority of Republicans support doing both.
This stands in contrast to CNN polling, which consistently presents a false choice on immigration policy. For example, polling released in late November 2011 by CNN/ORC asked, “What should be the main focus of the U.S. government in dealing with the issue of illegal immigration — developing a plan that would allow illegal immigrants who have jobs to become legal U.S. residents, or developing a plan for stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. and for deporting those already here?” By a 55% – 42% margin, voters support the option that involves stopping illegal immigration – a margin that is 71%-27% among Republicans. This “either/or” proposition completely misses the more nuanced and complex views held by voters.
Without a doubt, there is a group of anti-immigrant Republican voters. However, pundits and candidates alike often mistake their size and significance. The polling is quite clear. A majority of Republican voters want the same things that most Americans want on immigration – smart solutions rather than simplistic sound bites.