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On Immigration, Voters Get It, Politicians Don't

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So, just where do Americans stand on the red-hot issue of illegal immigration?  Is it true that they want the government to just “build the dang fence” and be done with it?  Are they so fed up with those who have violated immigration laws that they are clamoring for mass deportation?  Or do they want immigration reform that combines enforcement with legal status for those rooted here?  Do they like the Arizona “papers, please” immigration law and want other states to act, or do they want a comprehensive, federal solution?

A careful reading of opinion surveys over several years shows that the public has a sophisticated understanding of what constitutes a pragmatic immigration solution, and what constitutes political pandering.

In sum, here is where they stand: They are fed-up and frustrated, but only some are angry at immigrants; most are frustrated with the federal government’s failure to advance a solution.  The broken immigration system has become for them a potent symbol of how Washington has failed to step up and solve tough problems.  They want their leaders to take bold action that ends illegal immigration.  And the action they strongly prefer is a national and comprehensive approach that couples enforcement measures at the border and the workplace with a practical and humane path to legal status for those here without papers.

Here is some of the most recent evidence, which tracks polling results over the past few years:

A recent poll from Fox News (yes, that Fox News) found that 68 percent of voters – including majorities of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents – say efforts to secure the border should be combined with reform of federal immigration laws by Congress. What do voters mean by reform of federal immigration laws?; In the Fox poll, 68 percent “favor allowing illegal immigrants who pay taxes and obey the law to stay in the United States.”

But what about the Republican mantra of “secure the border first?”  As the Fox News analysis puts it:

While more voters think the government should secure the border first (21 percent) than pass new immigration laws (7 percent), most -- 68 percent -- say both should be done at the same time.  That includes majorities of Democrats (72 percent), independents (67 percent) and Republicans (65 percent).

This survey captures the fact that a solid two-thirds of voters realize that an “either/or” approach has to yield to a “both/and” strategy.  Enhanced security plus a path to earned legal status is the solution.

Clearly, those watching Fox News should pay more attention to their immigration polling than the simplistic, enforcement-only rhetoric coming from many of their guests.

The Fox poll isn’t unique. It’s actually the standard. Check these recent results from a Chicago Tribune/WGN poll of that city and its suburbs:

Nearly all of those who responded, 87 percent, believed that some sort of legal status should be offered to the nearly 11 million people in the country illegally, provided that the immigrants aren't dangerous felons, that they learn English and that they pay fines and back taxes.

Opinions about immigration in the suburbs are slightly different than in Chicago, whose immigrants from around the world have helped define the city. In some collar-county communities that have only recently seen new immigration, there is more support for police enforcement and a more negative view of illegal immigrants. On the question of offering legal status, 84 percent of those in the collar counties said they would support such a program, compared with 90 percent in the city.

Got that?  In this poll, 84% support for offering legal status represents the “more negative view.”  Let’s be realistic: rare is the issue that enjoys 84% support.

And it’s not just voters in the suburbs of Chicago, but in Idaho and Alabama, and Arkansas, Missouri, and Ohio who also support comprehensive immigration reform.

Take Colorado: a recent IPSOS poll of likely Colorado voters found that by 64 to 34 percent, Colorado voters agreed that “A person residing here illegally in the United States with a clean record should be able to pay a fine, their taxes, and then have the opportunity to become U.S. citizens.”  By a similar 62 percent to 33 percent split, these same respondents favor deporting those here illegally who commit crimes and allowing those remaining to stay.  In contrast to their support for a sensible earned citizenship plan, Colorado voters rejected blanket deportation proposals by a 58 percent to 40 percent margin. 

But why do polls show public support for Arizona’s “show me your papers” law?  Because voters are frustrated, they want action, and sympathize with those who take matters into their own hands given Washington’s failure to act.  But if you look closely, event these polls show strong support for a “both/and” approach, one that combines enforcement with a path to legal status for those here illegally.  Here are some examples:

  • Washington Post/ABC, June 2010: 58% support the Arizona law; 57% support “a program giving illegal immigrants now living in the United States the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements.”
  • NBC/MSNBC/Telemundo, May 2010: 61% of all voters support the Arizona law (70% of whites, 31% of Latinos); 65% of voters favor “allowing undocumented immigrants who are already in the country to pay a fine, learn English, and go back to the line for the opportunity to become American citizens.”
  • AP-GfK-Univision, May 7-12, 2010: 41% of all voters, and 15% of Hispanic voters, favor the Arizona law; 59% of all voters, and 86% of Hispanic voters, favor “a legal way for illegal immigrants already in the United States to become U.S. citizens.”
  • CBS/New York Times, April 28-May 2, 2010: 51% of voters feel the Arizona law is “just right” (9% say it doesn’t go far enough); 64% of voters agree that “illegal immigrants who are currently working in the U.S… should be allowed to stay in their jobs and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship, or they should be allowed to stay in their jobs only as guest workers.”

In fact, recent polling conducted by the Democratic firm of Lake Research Partners and the Republican firm of Public Opinion Strategies for America’s Voice found that while a majority of poll respondents supported the Arizona ‘papers please’ immigration law, a whopping 84% of those who voiced support for the Arizona law also supported comprehensive immigration reform. 

Then, sigh, there’s CNN’s polling.  Their polls from May and July present an “either/or” choice of border security or a path to citizenship, in line with the conventional wisdom offered by the inside-the beltway punditry. Sure, it’s an easier construct, but it’s also irrelevant. The question is not “do we secure the border or do we give citizenship to undocumented immigrants,” but “how do we secure the border and deal with undocumented immigrants”? CNN’s either/or choice shows 42% favor a path to legal status and 57 percent favor stopping the flow of illegal immigrants, as if voters can only have one or the other. 

Buried deeper in the May CNN poll – and rarely mentioned – is the finding that 80% of those surveyed favor “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.” 

Clearly, the public realizes that a pragmatic approach to dealing with the whole problem requires a national approach, enforcement and a path to legal status for qualified undocumented immigrants.  They don’t call it “amnesty,” they call it “accountability,” and that’s where Americans are—even if political class in DC doesn’t get it yet.

Cross-Posted at America's Voice

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