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Shocker: Most Backers of Arizona Law Support Humane Immigration Reform

06/02/2010 10:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Frank Sharry Founder and executive director, America's Voice

With national polls showing majority support for Arizona’s harsh immigration law, you probably think these voters are hard liners determined to rid the country of immigrants and deny a path to legal status for all of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S., right?

Wrong.

Here’s a shocker: four out of five voters who support Arizona’s new “papers-please” law also support comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented. On the flip side, a paltry one in five support rounding up and deporting everyone here illegally.

In a bipartisan survey sponsored by America’s Voice Education Fund and conducted by Lake Research Partners and Public Opinion Strategies of 800 registered voters nationwide, with an oversample of 300 Latino registered voters, we sought to understand the motivations and sentiments underlying the top line support for Arizona’s tough immigration law.  Here is what we found:

  • Three out of five voters nationwide do indeed support the Arizona law.  Not surprisingly, a majority of Latino voters oppose the law.
  • At the same time, four out of five of the voters who support the Arizona law also support comprehensive immigration reform with a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants.  Only one out of five support deportation as the preferred policy option when asked what to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. 
  • In addition, strong majorities believe that illegal immigration is a national problem, prefer comprehensive reform to Arizona-style laws in their state, and want the problem of illegal immigration acted on now.

Here are the numbers.  Like other polls, our latest shows that 60% of voters support the Arizona law nationwide, while 23% oppose it.  No news there.  But consider this finding:  Fully 78% of all voters supported comprehensive immigration reform.  Moreover, a whopping 84% of those who supported the Arizona law also supported comprehensive immigration reform. 

This bears repeating:

More than 4 out of 5 voters who support the Arizona law support comprehensive reform with a path to citizenship. And 67% of them strongly support comprehensive immigration reform.

How can voters enthusiastically support an Arizona law aimed at expelling undocumented immigrants and even more enthusiastically support comprehensive immigration reform that brings undocumented immigrants onto a path to citizenship?  What underpins these seemingly irreconcilable points of view?

At the core, voters’ support was rooted in frustration with lack of action at the federal level.  When we asked voters why they supported Arizona’s law, the number one answer– by a whopping 52% – was that voters believed the federal government had failed to solve the problem.  Only 28% said it was because they thought the law would reduce illegal immigration, and only 12% supported it because they thought it would reduce crime. 

Furthermore, by a margin of 53% to 18% voters prefer a comprehensive national solution to a version of Arizona’s law in their own state.  This is consistent with the finding that voters believe immigration is a national problem appropriately dealt with at a federal level (56%) rather than handled by individual states (22%).  

The passage of the Arizona law has not lessened these voters’ appetite for immediate federal action. Three quarters of voters (76%) want action taken now, as opposed to waiting for action, and two thirds (67%) strongly desire action now.

Voters were asked to choose between three policy options: deporting immigrants in the U.S. illegally; having them stay only as temporary workers; or requiring them to undergo registration with the government, background checks, payment of taxes, learning English, and going to the back of the citizenship line. The results show 22% chose deportation, 8% chose the temporary worker solution, and the third option, the path to legal status, was by far the most popular at 64%.  

Finally, we found that comprehensive reform unites rather than divides Americans, with 77% of Latinos in favor, roughly the same proportion as the electorate as a whole.   In fact, comprehensive immigration reform is more popular overall than the Arizona law with every political and demographic group of voters, except for southern Republicans who are equally supportive of both. 

Is our poll an outlier?  Not at all.  Our findings, especially with regard to support for a path to legal status for those in the U.S. illegally, are consistent with what other in-depth polls found.  For example, an AP-GfK-Univision poll conducted in early May found that 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.” A CBS/New York Times poll from late April/early May found that 64% of voters favor 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.”  A late May NBC poll found that 65% of voters nationwide support “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.”

Actually, these results are consistent with polling conducted over the years.  In the words of Markos Moulitsas, support for comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship has been “gaudy” for some time.  What may surprise many, however, is that voters can simultaneously support the Arizona law and support comprehensive immigration reform even more intensely. 

So, to recap, voters – frustrated with federal government inaction— much prefer “doing something” to “doing nothing.” They increasingly want the problem of illegal immigration addressed now.  They understand Arizona but want comprehensive immigration reform.  Few want to simply round up and deport all immigrants in the U.S illegally.

Politically, this means that the conventional wisdom about how to interpret majority support for the Arizona law is, as usual, wrong.  It means the clucking over at Fox News and chest-thumping by Arizona’s Republican leaders is misplaced.  It means that voters want their leaders to recognize the frustration with illegal immigration, to step up at the national level and to replace a broken and chaotic system with a legal and orderly one now. 

Instead of ducking it, Democrats should lean hard into the immigration issue, knowing that the problem-solving and pragmatism embedded in their support for comprehensive reform connects them with the broad majority of Americans who are hungry for solutions on this complex issue.  It means Republicans who pander to an angry anti-immigrant base will not only continue alienating Latino voters, but  will have a very difficult time expanding their support beyond that base.  

But won’t a battle over immigration reform mobilize the right, renew the “amnesty” attack, and turn these initial polls around?  No.  Recent polling by Hart Research Associates shows that comprehensive immigration reform holds up under the toughest attacks on some of the toughest terrain.  And consistent with the findings regarding Arizona support trumped by support for comprehensive immigration reform, following a simulated legislative battle over immigration Democrats who support it actually improve their overall standing with voters.

If only the meaning of the nationwide reaction to Arizona’s tough new law broke through to more in the political class.  At least Chris Mathews of MSNBC’s Hardball seems to get it.  Watch the video in which he concludes that voters want solutions now and yet much prefer comprehensive reform with a path to legal status.  He concludes:

"...So why is it so hard to do what the American people -- most of us -- so plainly want done?"

An excellent question. If anything, support for the Arizona law proves that the American people are growing increasingly impatient with Washington’s ineptitude on immigration.