More than two weeks after the Gang of Eight unveiled its immigration-reform bill, an important question remains unanswered: Do the American people actually support it?
One could assume so, judging from the headlines on recent polling, which cite the “strong” or even “overwhelming” support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Indeed, these polls show large majorities — as high as 83 percent — favoring a pathway to citizenship. That might be significant if the Gang of Eight’s plan were merely a vague proclamation of support for the idea of giving illegal immigrants the opportunity to apply for citizenship at some point in the future. A closer look at the polling and at the bill’s provisions reveals a much more ambiguous picture of public support for the measure.
A Pew poll released in April asked respondents for their opinions on the bill, “from what you’ve seen and heard so far.” Just 33 percent said they favored the legislation, while 28 percent were opposed. A plurality of respondents (38 percent) said they “don’t know.” That’s hardly an overwhelming indication of support.
Most polls simply ask about the general concept of giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, and voters’ responses change significantly depending on how pollsters phrase the question. For example, when people are asked about giving citizenship to illegal immigrants who “meet certain requirements,” such as learning English, paying fines and back taxes, and passing a criminal-background check, support usually reaches overwhelming levels. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll published Wednesday, 83 percent of Americans would support a pathway to citizenship under these conditions.
However, a Washington Post/ABC News poll released in April asked the same question but without listing any special requirements. Not surprisingly, it showed support for a path to citizenship to be much lower: 54 percent among registered voters.
A Quinnipiac poll published Thursday offered the additional option of letting illegal immigrants stay in the country but not become eligible for citizenship. Only 11 percent of registered voters backed this option, but only 52 percent supported a full pathway. A Pew poll in April asked a similar question and found that only 43 percent of Americans favored a pathway to citizenship, with 24 percent preferring “legal residency” as an alternative.
If we can glean anything from these results, it is that a slim majority of Americans, or perhaps only a plurality, support the idea of a pathway to citizenship, which the Gang’s bill would provide, and that a larger majority would back a pathway to citizenship with certain requirements. But that does not necessarily translate into support for the legislation itself.
The Gang’s bill has requirements — to learn English, “pay taxes,” and pass a background check — but they aren’t quite as ironclad as advertised. For example, the bill would require that immigrants seeking citizenship merely be “satisfactorily pursuing a course of study . . . to achieve an understanding of English,” which is a watered-down version of the language requirement under current law. And even proponents of the bill have dropped their talking point that it would require illegal immigrants to pay “back taxes,” because it wouldn’t. Prospective citizens would have to pay “any applicable federal tax liability,” defined as “all Federal income taxes assessed” by the IRS from an official tax filing or audit. However, the off-the-books nature of illegal immigration means it is highly unlikely that either scenario would apply to those seeking legal status; they would simply have to start paying taxes once they became legalized.
Those are just a few of the many loopholes that the bill’s critics have expressed concern over. In the 867-page document, the Daily Caller found 999 references to “waivers, exemptions, or political discretion” given to federal officials — about 1.14 loopholes per page. And yet reporters, pundits, and professional fact-checkers have devoted little space to scrutiny of the details in the Gang’s proposal or to confirming or debunking the talking points on either side of the issue. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker site has published zero items on the Gang’s legislation. PolitiFact has written only two posts that specifically address claims about the content of the bill — that it would not provide “amnesty” (half true), and that it would offer free phones to illegal immigrants (false). In any event, the Gang’s bill has received far less scrutiny than, say, any of the budgets Paul Ryan has written, none of which had a chance of becoming law.
Pollsters have similarly refrained from asking about specific policies in the Gang’s bill. On the issue of border security, however, public opinion is fairly clear and appears to be at odds with the legislation that has been presented. As written, the Gang’s plan would allow the current population of illegal immigrants to apply for legal status almost immediately, as soon as the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security presents a plan to secure the border.
However, 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.” The Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 81 percent of registered voters, and 76 percent of Democrats, support stricter border control to reduce illegal immigration. The bill’s backers, of course, claim this is precisely what their plan calls for. It would, among other measures, increase funding for border security and set the goal of a 90 percent apprehension rate along sections of the southern border. Critics point out that border-patrol funding has increased dramatically over the past couple of decades with little to show for it, and they note that experts are deeply skeptical that the 90 percent goal could be achieved or even accurately measured.
The New York Times/CBS News poll, which asked a series of follow-up questions, probably comes closest to giving a reasonably accurate measure of public support for the Gang’s bill. It found that 46 percent of Americans favored, with conditions, a path to citizenship that would allow illegal immigrants to achieve legal status “while border security is still being strengthened.” That leaves 43 percent who disagreed, including those who said that legal status should be granted “only after the border is secure” as well as those who opposed a pathway to citizenship altogether. This would suggest that, on the proposal that Congress is being asked to consider, the public is far more divided than is commonly supposed.
Conservative opponents of the bill, many of whom fear a repeat of the Obamacare fiasco — another large piece of highly consequential legislation rushed to passage before many of the bill’s details were known — are annoyed at how little scrutiny the bill has received thus far and at how little interest the media have shown in the policy detail being proposed. “There’s no discussion about what’s actually in the bill,” a conservative GOP Senate aide says. “It’s always, ‘Is it going to pass? Who is for it? Who is against it?’ . . . We’re confident that the more people find out about what the bill actually does, the less likely they will be to support it.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review Online.