Immigration Coming Off the Back Burner?

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 10:38 AM EDT

Ezra Klein starts off a post this way:

There's been plenty of overheated rhetoric and creative paranoia on display this year, but nativism has been, to me, the dog that didn't bark. The Tea Parties haven't been very focused on immigration, and while abortion and socialism both became major issues during health-care reform, fears that the bill would cover illegal immigrants (it won't, incidentally) never became a marquee issue.

Not to pick on Ezra or anything, but this attitude betrays a surprisingly common misconception about political issues in general. The fact is that political dogs never bark until an issue becomes an active one. Opposition to Social Security privatization was pretty mild until 2005, when George Bush turned it into an active issue. Opposition to healthcare reform was mild until 2009, when Barack Obama turned it into an active issue. Etc.

I only bring this up because we often take a look at polls and think they tell us what the public thinks about something. But for the most part, they don't.1 That is, they don't until the issue in question is squarely on the table and both sides have spent a couple of months filling the airwaves with their best agitprop. Polling data about gays in the military, for example, hasn't changed a lot over the past year or two, but once Congress takes up the issue in earnest and the Focus on the Family newsletters go out, the push polling starts, Rush Limbaugh picks it up, and Fox News creates an incendiary graphic to go with its saturation coverage — well, that's when the polling will tell you something. And it will probably tell you something different from what it tells you now.

Immigration was bubbling along as sort of a background issue during the Bush administration too until 2007, when he tried to move an actual bill. Then all hell broke loose. The same thing will happen this time, and without even a John McCain to act as a conservative point man for a moderate solution. The political environment is worse now than it was in 2007, and I'll be very surprised if it's possible to make any serious progress on immigration reform. "Love 'em or hate 'em," says Ezra, illegal immigrants "aren't at the forefront of people's minds." Maybe not. But they will be soon.

POSTSCRIPT: And keep in mind that one of the reasons the tea parties haven't (yet) taken up the immigration fight is very specific to the agenda of Dick Armey and FreedomWorks. I doubt that Armey will win this battle in the long run, though.

1Granted, polls do give us a general idea of where we're starting from. If immigration reform were polling at 80%, for example, I'd feel pretty good about it since that number could deteriorate 20 points and it would still have a lot of support. But if it's polling at around 50-60% — which it is — that's dangerous territory. Once the yelling starts you can expect that number to go down a bunch, and suddenly it won't be a popular issue to tackle during an election year.