What Americans Really Think about Immigration
Contrary to conventional wisdom, they don’t like much about the Gang of Eight bill.

Patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border fence at Nogales, Ariz.


Andrew Stiles

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.