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Politicians and Pundits Misread Public; Majorities Consistently Support Common Sense Immigration Reform
Conventional wisdom holds that voters, especially Republican voters, are relentlessly hardline when it comes to immigration policy and reform. Polls that present false choices over immigration—asking whether the government should focus on enforcing immigration laws OR legalizing undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria—only serve to confirm that flawed analysis. However, more sophisticated surveys conducted by a number of reputable organizations make it clear that Americans’ views on immigration are far more nuanced than politicians seem to understand.
A majority of all voters, including Republican voters, wants a “both/and” approach to immigration policy – one that includes both a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and effective immigration enforcement.
According to Pew Research Center polling from March 2011 the majority of Americans, including Republicans, support both an earned path to citizenship and enforcement. When asked whether they “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, voters supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently in the United States. Broken up by political typology, Main Street Republicans supported a path to citizenship 58%-39% while staunch conservatives were split 49%-49%. Libertarians supported it 66%-32%, Disaffecteds supported it 65%-29%, and Post-Moderns supported it 87%-13%. Of Democratic-heavy groups, New Coalition Democrats supported a path to citizenship 80%-12%, Hard-Pressed Democrats supported it 61%-35%, and Solid Liberals supported it 94%-4%.
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. A strong majority of all voters, including Republicans, supports both legalization AND enforcement.
November 2011 polling from Pew confirms this. When asked what the priority for “illegal immigration policy should be,” 29% said “better border security and stronger enforcement” while 24% said “a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the U.S.” A plurality (43%) said both. Therefore, two-thirds of respondents think that a path to citizenship—either by itself or combined with enforcement—should be a priority.
Fox News Channel poll shows voters support a both immigration reform and enforcement. In an August 2010 poll for Fox News, Opinion Dynamics asked 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?” Respondents approved of allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. by a margin of 68%-27%, with Republicans favoring it 63%-33%. In a related Fox survey from December 2011, 66% percent of voters said that the government should “allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country and eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship” if they meet requirements including a background check and learning English. Nineteen percent supported “send[ing] all illegal immigrants back to their home country” and 13% supported funneling them into a guest worker program.
The August 2010 Fox survey also asked: “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?” Twenty-one percent said securing the border should be the top priority, while only 7% said that passing new immigration legislation should be. But 68% favored doing both simultaneously. Twenty-eight percent of Republicans favored securing the border first, while only 4% said new legislation should be the top priority. But 65% favored doing both simultaneously. Again, when presented with the option of enforcement and path to legal status, a majority of all voters and a majority of Republicans support doing both.
This stands in contrast to CNN polling, which consistently presents a false choice on immigration policy. 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 supported the option that would stop illegal immigration – a margin that widened to 71%-27% among Republicans. This “either/or” proposition completely misses the more nuanced and complex views of voters.
According to this same poll, 67% of Americans (including a majority of Republicans) feel sympathetic toward undocumented immigrants and their families. And in an earlier version of the CNN poll, 80% of Americans favored “creating a program that would allow illegal immigrants already living in the United States for a number of years to stay here and apply to legally remain in this country permanently if they had a job and paid back taxes” (19% opposed it).
Ending illegal immigration is important to voters, but they understand that this won’t happen through mass deportation and enforcement alone. A path to citizenship for qualified undocumented immigrants makes practical, economic, and moral sense. When will politicians catch up with the people on this?