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Making Sense of Polling on Immigration: Americans Strongly Prefer Action Over Inaction

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With the debate over immigration executive action in full swing, here are three key points regarding public opinion and the polling instruments used to measure it:

1)      If you ask a misleading question, you’ll get an inaccurate response.  Polling from USA Today released this week asks, “Should President Obama take executive action this year to deal with illegal immigration or should he wait until January for the new Republican Congress to pass legislation on this issue?” Forty-six percent of Americans preferred waiting for legislation in January, while 42% chose executive action now (within the margin of error).  After years of polling that show Americans strongly backing comprehensive immigration reform legislation, it should come as no surprise that some are still holding out hope for a legislative solution.  However, as has already been documented extensively by America’s Voice and numerous pundits, there is zero chance that the incoming Republican Congress will pass immigration reform in “January” or any time before the 2016 elections.  What’s more, the key takeaway here is that the vast majority of Americans want action, not the Republicans’ default position of propping up the status quo.

A more accurate question comes from a Washington Post poll from September 2014.  By a 52%-44% margin, Americans were in favor of Obama taking action “on his own through executive orders…if Congress does not act to address the immigration issue.” 

2)      Americans favor action on immigration this year and oppose the status quo.  One constant that courses through polling and public opinion research on immigration is Americans’ strong desire for action on immigration and their preference for a pathway to citizenship over universal deportation.  For example, the 2014 network exit polls asked what to do about “most illegal immigrants working in the U.S.”  By a 57%-39% margin, voters nationwide preferred “legal status” over “deportation.”  Poll after poll consistently finds broad and durable support for a path to citizenship and/or legalization (somewhere in the neighborhood of two-thirds of the public back a path to citizenship, as captured in polling from this Congress conducted by Fox News, Politico, bipartisan polling in 25 GOP-held congressional districts, Public Religion Research Institute, Quinnipiac, and others).

Additionally, most polls show the public is impatient for progress (on a range of issues) and want the government to take steps forward today.  A 2014 Gallup poll found that 94% of Americans believed it was important that “the government takes steps this year” to advance a plan for undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.  And August 2014 polling from Fox News found overwhelming support for a citizenship over doing nothing on undocumented immigrants this year by a 65%-20% margin. 

3)      Latino voters—58% of whom know someone who is undocumented—are especially in tune to the immigration debate and increasingly frustrated with Washington’s inaction.  2014 election eve polling from Latino Decisions underscores the fact that the Republican Party’s anti-immigrant brand and voting record has cut them off from a large swath of Latino voters.  At the same time, the Democrats’ fall 2014 decision to delay executive action until after the elections contributed to simmering frustration and disillusionment that hurt them among core voting groups like Latino, APIA, and naturalized citizen voters.  The poll’s oversample of registered Latino voters who did not vote in the 2014 elections found that 60% of these 2014 non-voters said the immigration executive action delay made them less enthusiastic about President Obama and Democrats (23% said “more enthusiastic” and 14% said it had “no impact”).

Looking ahead to 2016, 68% of non-voting Latinos in 2014 said that if President Obama takes executive action before the end of the year it would make them more enthusiastic about Democrats—potentially growing their voter base.  Meanwhile, if Republicans try to block executive action, actual 2014 Latino voters said it would make them even less enthusiastic about the Republican Party by a 61%-24% margin—similarly spelling doom for the 2016 GOP. 

According to Lynn Tramonte, Deputy Director of America’s Voice, “Americans are tired of folks in Washington kicking the can down the road on immigration reform.  The President can and must do everything in his power, now, to fix the broken immigration system until Congress finally wakes up and does its job.”