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The Public’s View of Immigration

Americans Are Talking but Why Aren't Candidates Listening?

Polling suggests Americans across the political spectrum support pragmatic solutions on immigration and reject base politicking, write Philip E. Wolgin and Angela Maria Kelley.

Salome Gomez, left, carries his 2-year-old daughter, Adriana Gomez, in light rain during an immigrant rights march in downtown Dallas, Texas. The vast majority of Americans support smart solutions to immigration reform and reject mass deportation. (AP/LM Otero)
Salome Gomez, left, carries his 2-year-old daughter, Adriana Gomez, in light rain during an immigrant rights march in downtown Dallas, Texas. The vast majority of Americans support smart solutions to immigration reform and reject mass deportation. (AP/LM Otero)

Immigration became an increasingly polarized issue over the last few years. Now, loud voices on all sides shout each other down and crowd out any discussion of real solutions. Smears of “amnesty” have tarred numerous politicians, and the idea of dealing sensibly with the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States appears to be anathema for many on the right. The recent Republican presidential debates only confirm how much immigration is a hot-button issue.

But how do ordinary Americans feel about immigration? Five recent polls, run by organizations from across the political spectrum—from Fox News to Latino Decisions—unequivocally illustrate that the vast majority of Americans support smart solutions to immigration reform and reject mass deportation. They support a pathway to citizenship for people who are part of our communities, learn English, pay back taxes, and so forth, and they reject tearing these families apart.

Put simply, these polls illustrate that the ideological extremism of the hard right is well outside the mainstream pragmatism of the American people.

Delving even further into the data, it turns out that no matter who you are—rich or poor; liberal or conservative; a college graduate or not; white, black, or brown; or even a member of the Tea Party—these results still hold true. And they are only the latest in polling that stretches back years, illustrating that America is far more in line with real solutions to immigration reform than are nativist right-wingers.

The bottom line is that Americans understand that something needs to be done to reform our nation’s immigration system, and that any solution to our immigration conundrums must take a realistic look at the 11 million people without status already living in the United States.

Let’s take a look at the recent polling.

1. Fox News: Voters reject mass deportations and reward smart solutions

Fox News released a poll on December 9 completed by a joint team from the Democratic-leaning firm Anderson Robbins Research and the Republican-leaning firm Shaw & Company Research. Even from an organization like Fox News that trends to the right, the poll results show an unquestionably pro-immigrant America.

The two firms polled 911 registered voters (in the field December 5–7, with a 3 percent margin of error). In response to the question, “Which of the following comes closest to your view about what government policy should be toward illegal immigrants currently in the United States?” only 19 percent of voters said that the government should send all unauthorized immigrants back to their country of origin. A full 66 percent—two-thirds—stated that they should be allowed to remain in the country and eventually become citizens after paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check.

Breaking down the question data, the results are fairly similar: Only 14 percent of Democrats support mass deportation while 26 percent of Republicans and 29 percent of Tea Party members support the idea. Only 16 percent of those with a college degree supported mass deportation while 22 percent of those without supported it. Even Tea Party-identified voters, the hard right of the Republican Party, rejected mass deportation and heavily favored a pathway to citizenship.

A second question came out of a proposal to have local community boards “determine whether illegal immigrants can stay in the United States based on factors such as how long the immigrants have lived here, if they have a family, a job and are paying taxes, and have other ties to the community.” Here again, the majority (51 percent) supported the proposal while 44 percent opposed.

Finally, the poll asked, “Do you favor or oppose increasing the number of LEGAL immigrants allowed to come to the United States as long as they agree to work, pay taxes and obey the law?” Sixty-three percent favored while only 33 percent opposed.

This figure—almost two-thirds of all voters—stays relatively constant regardless of how you cut the data. Democrats, for example, favored increasing legal immigration by 65 percent while Republicans and Tea Party-identified voters favored it by 61 percent and 62 percent respectively. The percentages stay relatively constant by gender and by age. The biggest swing within the question is among those with a college degree (who favored the question by 70 percent) and noncollege graduates (who favored the question by 57 percent).

2. Pew Research Center: Voters expect policies that secure the border and deal with the undocumented

The Pew Research Center released a poll on December 6 (in the field November 9–14) of 2,001 likely voters (with a 3 percent margin of error), which shows that most Americans reject either/or scenarios for immigration.

More respondents (43 percent) believed the focus of immigration policy should be both “better border security and stronger enforcement” and “a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the US.” By contrast, far smaller margins favored one extreme or the other. Only 29 percent believed the United States should prioritize more enforcement, and 24 percent believed the priority should be a path to citizenship.

Clearly the American people reject the idea that immigration policy has to be a zero-sum game, with either more enforcement or a pathway to citizenship as the only viable options.

The breakdown among voters is equally telling. Forty-three percent of Republican voters, for example, support better border security alone, while 14 percent support a pathway to citizenship alone. When combined, a full 41 percent support pursuing both at once. The findings are similar when compared by age or educational level.

Not surprisingly, Hispanic Democrats are more disposed toward the pathway to citizenship, favoring it 30 percent, compared to 21 percent for better border security. Still, like Republican voters, 45 percent of Hispanic Democrats favor both options.

3. National Journal: Three-quarters of Americans reject mass deportations

Like the Pew poll, the United Technologies/National Journal poll released on December 7 shows that most Americans support a combination of increased enforcement and a pathway to citizenship.

When asked what to do with the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, only 25 percent of Americans believed they should all be deported, regardless of how long they had been in the United States. On the flip side, 28 percent stated that all unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to stay, regardless of length of residence. The middle third, or 39 percent, argued that some should be deported, but those who had been here for many years and had broken no laws should be allowed to stay.

Breaking down the poll data, Republican-identified voters had the largest margin of people who stated that they favored mass deportation. But here again, the number is fairly small, at only 33 percent. The plurality (43 percent) believed that immigrants who had been here for a long time should be allowed to stay. On the flip side, non-Hispanic blacks were least likely to support mass deportation (14 percent) and most likely to support allowing all unauthorized immigrants to stay (42 percent), tied in the latter with voters ages 18–29. This last finding is particularly interesting because restrictionists continue to argue that African Americans are in competition with unauthorized immigrants for jobs.

4. Iowa Republican Caucus-Goers: Caucus participants give a “thumbs up” to legal immigration

The previous three polls looked at voters from across the political spectrum. But what about conservative voters in a state like Iowa, which has been at the center of a number of immigration controversies? Though the December 6 poll released by Selzer & Co. for the Partnership for a New American Economy (in the field from November 16–19, of 400 likely Iowa Republican caucus voters) focuses mainly on legal immigration, the results show Iowans support practical immigration solutions like the rest of the country.

As Politico reported, Iowa voters rejected the simple “us versus them” arguments on immigration, heavily supporting increased border security (82 percent) and new methods for allowing employers to check the status of their workers (74 percent). But they also supported other immigration proposals, such as issuing more visas to high-skilled workers (66 percent), to low-skilled workers (72 percent), and granting green cards to foreign graduates of American universities (72 percent).

More interestingly, 58 percent of likely voters agreed with the proposition that “immigrants create jobs,” with only 39 percent opposing the statement. Even larger majorities showed a keen understanding of the challenges facing immigration policy, agreeing with the propositions that “foreign entrepreneurs want to come to the U.S. and can’t because current rules for visas do not give them priority” (63 percent), and “the U.S. economy has thrived because of the hardworking immigrants who came to this country to start new lives” (73 percent).

These same voters rejected the idea that “if we continue to take in immigrants … we will lose our American culture” (61 percent), and that “immigration is a national security concern. We need to decrease all immigration” (54 percent). Interestingly, though, 63 percent agreed that “When U.S. citizens do not have enough jobs to go around, this is not a good time to invite new immigrants to the country.”

5. Latino Decisions: For Latino and non-Latino voters alike, candidates’ immigration views matter, even if the voters support the candidates’ other views

One final poll is important to note, released on November 8 by Univision News and Latino Decisions of the national general and Latino electorate (with 1,000 respondents each, in the field between October 21–November 1, with a 3.1 percent margin of error).

Being anti-immigrant repels voters, even from candidates they otherwise like. Among a number of questions about the various presidential candidates and views on both Democrats and Republicans, the pollsters asked respondents to say whether they would be more or less likely to support a candidate whose economic plans they supported but said “illegal immigrants are a threat to America … we can never support amnesty for illegals.” Overall only 14 percent of Latino voters said they would be more likely to support the candidate, while 59 percent stated they would be less likely.

Conversely, being pro-immigrant strengthens support for candidates. When asked if they would be more likely to support a candidate with an economic plan they support, who instead stated that “we need to treat immigrants with respect and dignity and help them assimilate into America instead of attacking them,” more than three-quarters of Latino respondents (76 percent) stated that they would be more likely to support them, while only 6 percent would be less likely to do so.

When the general public was asked the same questions, the results are quite similar. This illustrates that talking tough on immigration is not a winning strategy for the public either. Only 25 percent of the general public stated they were more likely to support the candidate with the harsher public statements on immigration, while 41 percent were less likely. On the flip side, 46 percent were more likely to support a candidate with positive views on immigration, and only 15 percent were less likely.


So what should we take away from these polls?

First, and most obviously, the vast majority of Americans, regardless of where they fall in the political spectrum, support no-nonsense solutions to immigration reform and a pathway to legal status for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country. And, as a more recent Latino Decisions poll uncovered, for Latino voters—an increasingly significant portion of the electorate—fixing immigration is their prime concern, more so than any other issues such as unemployment or the economy.

This pragmatism stands in stark contrast to the increasingly hardline stance of many on the right such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), who told Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly that undocumented immigrants could be “dragged onto busses” in front of their children and deported.

Second, for the vast majority of Americans, especially conservatives, as the Pew Research Center and Iowa polls show, the immigration issue is not an either/or issue, where securing the border must be opposed to legalization. Instead, the American public can equally support both.

Hopefully anti-immigration hardliners will take this message to heart and realize that it’s good policy and good politics to back realistic answers, not polarizing rhetoric.

Philip E. Wolgin is Immigration Policy Analyst and Angela Maria Kelley is Vice President for Immigration Policy and Advocacy at the Center for American Progress.

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 (Phil Wolgin)

Philip E. Wolgin

Former Managing Director, Immigration Policy

Angela Maria Kelley

Executive Director, Center for American Progress Action Fund; Senior Vice President, Center for American Progress