What Americans Really Think about Immigration

by Andrew Stiles
Contrary to conventional wisdom, they don’t like much about the Gang of Eight bill.

Now that the Gang of Eight immigration bill has passed the Senate, the political conversation has shifted to the House — specifically, to the question of whether or not House Republicans can survive should they decide to back similar legislation.

Yet the political class continues to show surprisingly little interest in the evidence as to whether or not the American public actually supports the Gang’s bill and all of its major provisions. (It’s worth noting that even the bill’s primary backers are unable to answer basic questions about what’s in it.) A look at the polling data suggests that the conventional wisdom — most people want immigration reform, as defined by the Gang of Eight, to happen — is, at the very least, more complicated than the bill’s supporters would have you believe.  

For example, an ABC News/Washington Post poll published Thursday asked registered voters three questions about the Senate immigration bill without specifically referring to the legislation. As ABC’s Jonathan Karl explained to Senator Ted Cruz recently, it found that a majority (55 percent) of respondents support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a central component of the Senate bill. That is generally in line with previous polling on the subject, though there is some variation depending on how the question is framed.

The poll also found strong support (64 percent) for the “border surge” provision (the Corker-Hoeven amendment), which was added to the bill in order to win (primarily) Republican support. That measure calls for 700 miles of fencing along the southern border and 20,000 new Border Patrol agents, an increase that the union representing those agents did not request, and likely does not have the capacity to accommodate. Support for the border surge fell to 53 percent, however, when voters were informed how much it would cost — about $46 billion over ten years.

That was the extent of the survey. The Post wrote up the findings under the headline, “Senate immigration plan wins majority support from public.” It’s treatment like this that drives the Gang of Eight’s opponents mad — the media often insists on reducing the entire debate over an issue as complex as immigration reform to measuring support for giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship and (less prominently) securing the border.

This bias is evident in a recent Quinnipiac poll, which gave voters three choices with respect to illegal immigrants currently living in the United States: 1) They should be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship, 2) They should be allowed to stay, but not apply for citizenship, and 3) They should be required to leave the country. A majority of voters (54 percent) chose the first option over the other two (12 percent and 28 percent, respectively), in line with most polling on the issue.

But the 1,200-page bill the Senate passed last month does far more than offer illegal immigrants the opportunity to apply for citizenship. As most opponents of that bill would argue, the pathway to citizenship is, if anything, a secondary issue; they are more concerned about the bill’s near-immediate legalization of illegal immigrants before any security or enforcement benchmarks must be met. Some suspect this part of the bill is more important to Democrats than the pathway to citizenship, which they can always negotiate later. Legal status, on the other hand, once granted, will almost surely never be revoked.

A few polls have sought to gauge public opinion on a related question, more central to the structure of a comprehensive immigration bill — whether or not illegal immigrants should be granted legal status before any concrete security and enforcement measures are in place. The results are fairly consistent: A Fox News poll released in April found that 68 percent of voters, including 66 percent of Democrats, “want new border security measures to be completed before changes to immigration policies.” A Rasmussen survey in May found similar support (66 percent) for a “border security first” approach. And a survey from GOP pollster John McLaughlin earlier this month found that 60 percent of Hispanics think illegal immigrants should be given legal status only after a goal of stopping 90 percent of illegal immigration has been achieved.

The Gang of Eight rejected efforts to incorporate such a trigger into the law as unreasonable, and according to the Congressional Budget Office, their bill, even with the new border-surge components, would only reduce future illegal immigration by somewhere from 33 to 50 percent. Rasmussen recently asked likely voters if they would support a bill that would provide legal status to illegal immigrants while reducing future illegal immigration by half. Only 39 percent said yes.

There has been almost no discussion in the mainstream media about the Senate bill’s changes to our legal-immigration system. The bill would, according to the CBO, admit 16 million more legal immigrants over the next ten years that under current law (which will admit 22 million). Many of those immigrants would be on the lower end of the skill spectrum, and the CBO projects that this “influx” of low-skilled, low-wage, and in some cases temporary workers would reduce average wages and increase unemployment over the next decade. (Yes, it’s true that CBO shows wages rising after 2024, but one wonders if there aren’t ways to reform the immigration system that might avoid a decade’s worth of wage stagnation.)

What does the American public think about an immigration bill that would increase the number of  legal immigrants? Most polls show that the position taken by the Gang of Eight is a remarkably unpopular one. According to a recent Gallup survey, only 23 percent of Americans think legal immigration should be increased, compared with 35 percent who said it should be decreased, and 40 percent who said the present level should be maintained. Only 22 percent of independents and just 29 percent of Democrats favored higher immigration levels.

The bill provides for higher levels of legal high-skilled immigration, too, an issue a National Journal poll from late June specifically asked about. The results were roughly the same: Increasing the number of visas for high-skilled immigrants was the least popular position, at just 22 percent support, compared with 24 percent of people favoring a decrease, and 47 percent saying current levels should be maintained. Polls asking specifically about low-skilled immigration are hard to come by, if they exist at all, but one imagines that support for increasing the number of low-skilled workers allowed into the country, which the Gang of Eight bill would do, would not be very high. But no one’s asking.

National Journal published another poll on July 17 under the highly misleading headline, “Americans Want Congress to Pass the Senate Immigration Bill.” In fact, only 29 percent of respondents said that the bill should be passed as is, which is what President Obama and members of the Gang of Eight (excluding Marco Rubio) are asking the House to do. Just 29 percent. A slightly greater number (30 percent) said tougher border-security provisions should be added before passage, and 13 percent said they would support passage if the pathway to citizenship were removed. Twenty percent of those polled opposed the passage of any immigration-reform legislation at all.

Of course, it’s hard to impute any real significance to polls that ask about support for the Senate bill itself, as opposed to its various provisions, since most voters don’t actually know what’s in the bill (even the people who supposedly wrote it aren’t entirely sure).

And when it comes to political calculations, there is always the question of voter priorities. Polling suggests that most Americans, and even most Hispanic voters, do not consider immigration reform to be a pressing issue compared with the economy or health care. According to the June National Journal poll, 42 percent of Americans said a lawmaker’s support for a bill that includes a path to citizenship would not affect their decision to vote for that person — 33 percent said it would make them less likely to vote for someone, and just 21 percent said it would make them more likely to. Meanwhile, polling indicates that Democrats from red states who supported the Gang of Eight bill could face a political backlash over their votes.

In the coming months, Democrats and the media will suggest that House Republicans face almost an absolute political imperative to pass some modified form of the Senate immigration plan. But the question of whether the American people’s attitudes support such pressure will likely remain unexamined.

— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.

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