Something to think about while you’re mulling over the possibility of immigration reform in 2010. This is a great report by by Scott Keeter, Director of Survey Research, Pew Research Center.
Recently the Obama administration announced that it will push for legislation next year to overhaul the nation’s immigration system. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that the administration will argue for what she called a “three-legged stool” including stricter enforcement, a “tough and fair pathway to earned legal status” for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., and a more efficient process for legal immigration.
How is the public likely to react to this new push? Since 2007 when the Bush administration failed in its effort to build a coalition in support of comprehensive reform, the issue has been relatively dormant. Pew Research polling has found significant public support for both tougher enforcement and the so-called “path to citizenship,” but several factors suggest that the debate could be a difficult one.
First, if the experience of 2007 is any guide, opposition to setting up a process for undocumented immigrants to achieve citizenship may be more intense — even if less widespread — than support for it. Second, the nation’s economic situation is significantly worse than it was when the issue was debated in 2006 and 2007. Some Republican lawmakers reacted to Secretary Napolitano’s speech by raising concerns about the competition for jobs posed by foreign-born workers. More generally, partisan differences on the issue have grown since two years ago, potentially making it more difficult to achieve a consensus in Congress. And third, as the debate over health care reform has shown, there is considerable public anxiety right now about the scope of the federal government’s activities and its capacity to undertake major policy changes.
How Important is Immigration Reform to the Public?
Immigration has been a low- to mid-tier issue with the U.S. public for the past three years. In January this year, just 41% said that dealing with illegal immigration should be a “top priority” for the new president and Congress to deal with, down 10 points from January 2008 and 14 points from 2007, when Congress was considering legislation on the issue. Even among Republicans, who placed more significance on the issue than did Democrats, illegal immigration was not among their most important priorities.
Immigration also was not a key issue in the presidential election, other than for a brief period during the campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination. Pew Research polling during fall 2008 found just 49% saying that immigration was a “very important” issue in their vote — 11th on a list of 13 issues probed. By comparison 91% said the economy was very important, 80% said jobs, 78% said energy and 77% said this for health care.
Immigration was a low priority in the election not only for the public as a whole but for Latinos as well. Both before and after the election, Latinos surveyed by the Pew Hispanic Center rated immigration as significantly less important than issues such as jobs and education. In December, just 31% said it was an “extremely important” issue for the new president to deal with.
One reason for the relatively low profile of the immigration issue may be the very high profile of other issues, most notably the economy and health care reform, not to mention the war in Afghanistan. But the potential power of the issue was in evidence on Sept. 9 when Rep. Joe Wilson shouted “You lie” at President Obama during his address on health care; that shout was in response to the president’s statement that: “There are also those who claim that our reform efforts would insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false.”
Another reason for the low profile of the immigration issue could be that the flow of immigrants into the U.S. has slowed. According to Pew Hispanic Center analyses, migration from Mexico has dropped substantially over the past three years. At the same time, there is no clear evidence that migration out of the U.S. and into Mexico has risen during this time. And, of course, Mexico is not the only source of immigration into the U.S. So there are still many unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. — approximately 11.9 million in 2009, according to the Pew Hispanic Center’s senior demographer, Jeffrey Passel.
The Contours of Opinion
When Congress and the president abandoned efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007, public opinion was quite conflicted. A Pew Research poll found that, among those aware of the legislation, more people opposed (41%) than supported (33%) the bill being considered by the Senate, but a solid majority of 63% of the general public supported the bill’s main objective to provide a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants. At the time, support for this principle was bipartisan, with nearly as many Republicans as Democrats favoring it. And even when the provision was described as “amnesty,” a majority still supported it — though by a smaller margin of 54%-39%. Republicans were evenly divided on the question when the policy was described as “amnesty.”
Pew Research has asked about the path to citizenship three times since 2007, most recently in April of this year when 63% again said they favored providing a way for illegal immigrants currently in the country to gain legal citizenship if they pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs. Unlike in 2007, there is now a substantial partisan gap, with 73% of Democrats but just 50% of Republicans in favor of the path to citizenship.
While favoring a change that would make it possible for many undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S., the public has also generally favored stronger efforts to enforce existing immigration laws. Majorities favor increasing penalties on businesses that hire undocumented workers, beefing up border security, and allowing states to check immigration status before issuing driver’s licenses.
Underlying the public’s attitudes about specific reform proposals is a set of contradictory and conflicted perceptions and attitudes about immigrants. Numerous polls over the past several years have found that the public generally respects immigrants for their strong work ethic, good family values and for the cultural contributions they make to American society. But at the same time, pluralities or majorities believe that illegal immigrants weaken the economy by using public services, failing to pay their fair share of taxes, not making enough of an effort to assimilate and, according to some surveys, contributing to the threat of terrorism and the crime problem. And, more generally, large majorities of the public continue to favor limiting the number of immigrants entering the country (73% in April of this year).
Yet, the public’s appetite for enforcement-based solutions is not unlimited. Though most favor increasing border security, the public has been divided over the building of a security fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Relatively few people say that deportation of illegal immigrants should have a high priority when asked to choose among different options for dealing with the issue. Indeed, just 13% of respondents in a June 2007 poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal said that deporting all illegal immigrants is a realistic and achievable goal.
The Prospects for Reform
President Obama campaigned on a platform that included a commitment to immigration reform in his first term. Whether or not he can build public support in pursuit of that goal depends on several factors that are difficult to forecast. The first is whether the sluggish economy and high unemployment will increase opposition to a policy that eventually leads to legal residence for millions of workers currently in the U.S. illegally. Anxiety about the job competition immigrants pose to American workers was important during the debate in 2006-2007, but polling during that period found significant majorities saying that immigrants generally take jobs American workers don’t want, rather than taking jobs away from Americans (59%-30%, in a May 2007 CBS News/New York Times poll). How much that view has changed today will affect how well the Democratic Party, in particular, can hold together a coalition in support of reform.
A second unknown is how willing Republican Party leaders will be to support a cross-party coalition in the Congress. Both John McCain and Mitt Romney encountered criticism from conservatives within the GOP during their run for the Republican nomination for president. And, of course, President Bush was unable to unify his party around a comprehensive immigration measure in 2007, despite having made it a priority for his second term. Arguably, conservatives hold more sway within the party now than a few years ago. As noted earlier, public opinion on the issue has become more partisan over this period, with Democrats expressing greater support for reform than Republicans.
Finally, there is the role of Hispanics and Latinos themselves. In 2004, Hispanics gave President Bush 40% of their votes, and Republicans were optimistic that the party could make inroads into this growing constituency. But over the next few years, Latinos shifted in a Democratic direction and gave Barack Obama 67% of their votes (to 31% for McCain). Many observers argued that the tone of the debate over immigration hurt the Republican Party in the eyes of Latinos, and many within the party worry that another heated immigration battle could further damage the party with this important group of voters.