Pew Finds Immigration Reform Americans’ 16th Most Important Issue. Guess What’s No. 1?

Ross Douthat’s New York Times column today, which makes the case against Republican House leadership’s plan to take up immigration legislation this year, notes an interesting finding: 

Immigration ranks 16th on the public’s list of priorities, according to the latest Pew numbers, so it’s difficult to see how making this the signature example of a new, solutions-oriented G.O.P. is going to help the party in the near term. Whereas it’s much easier to see how it helps the Democrats: if a bill passes, it will do so with heavy Democratic support, hand President Obama a policy victory at a time when he looks like a lame duck, and demoralize the right along the way.

Indeed, Pew’s most recent survey of Americans’ policy priorities has immigration 16th out of 20 issues in terms of the number of Americans who consider it a “top priority,” with just 41 percent of respondents saying it should be a congressional priority. It’s actually worse, maybe, than it even looks: Those people weren’t saying that comprehensive immigration reform is a priority for them, they were identifying “dealing with illegal immigration” as a top priority. While that could mean offering some form of amnesty to illegal immigrants, it doesn’t seem that’s what people thought was meant by the phrase, because more Republicans (who typically want more border security, etc.) said it was a top priority than Democrats (who are more likely to favor legalization). It is possible people would rate “immigration reform” highly, but Pew doesn’t even include that as an option — suggesting that, as far as their pollsters know, it wouldn’t rate well.

Gallup has found similarly little interest in immigration, and in its questioning on what the “most important” issue facing America is, it also doesn’t include our immigration system overall. It does include “immigration/illegal aliens,” which was selected by just 3 percent of respondents the most recent time the question was asked, at the beginning of January 2014.

And when Gallup asked people to rank the importance of issues, it did just as poorly as it did with Pew: In May 2013, they asked Americans whether each of a set of various issues should be a “top priority” for Congress, a “high priority,” or neither. 

“Reforming immigration” does the worst of the 13 issues mentioned, with just 22 percent calling it a “top priority” and 28 percent saying it should be a “high priority.” The only other issues where less than 60 percent of Americans said it was a “top” or “high” priority were tax reform and reducing gun violence. (Here, again, though, more Republicans said they think “reforming immigration” is important than did Democrats, suggesting that the Americans who care about “reforming immigration,” even when illegal aliens aren’t mentioned, care more about addressing illegal immigration than legalization, higher rates of immigration, or other parts of most comprehensive immigration efforts.)

By contrast, 86 percent of Americans thought both “creating more jobs” and “helping the economy grow” were either top priorities or high priorities. Similarly a combined 34 percent of Americans, when they could pick just one “most important issue” in the January Gallup poll, picked unemployment or the economy, and the top two results in the above Pew poll were “strengthening the nation’s economy” and “improving the job situation.”

So why are Republicans tempted to take up something Americans care so little about instead of focusing on the economy? Douthat suggests that part of the problem is a lack of confidence that they have an economic platform that can win them elections. But, he argues, that’s starting to change. I agree that it is, which means that, as Reihan recently laid out in his Reuters column, the GOP can and should focus on jobs, not immigration.

There are, of course, immigration reforms that will help the U.S. economy, and the former should be a part of the conversation — but the immediate, acute economic concerns Americans have about the economy, including health-care costs, unemployment, etc., are hardly best-addressed by a bill that looks to be most stimulative for the most powerful members of the Chamber of Commerce and the Farm Bureau.

Patrick Brennan — Patrick Brennan is a writer and policy analyst based in Washington, D.C. He was Director of Digital Content for Marco Rubio's presidential campaign, writing op-eds, policy content, and leading the ...

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