What Does the Public Want on Immigration?

Sorting out the current political debate

| Tue Apr. 11, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

Article created by the The Century Foundation.

Normally, there’s a modest stream of public opinion data on the immigration issue, much of it confusing. Now, suddenly, there’s a great deal of data on this issue . . . and it’s still confusing.

Time to try to sort it out. Here are some basic findings on the issue that may help in interpreting the current political debate.

1.The public believes immigration is a serious problem and levels of concern appear to be growing. For example, in the most recent Time magazine poll, 68 percent said illegal immigration was a very or extremely serious problem and, in a just-released Pew Research Center poll on immigration, 74 percent termed immigration a very big or moderately big problem, up from 69 percent in 2002.

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In the same Pew poll, 52 percent now say that “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care” (up from 38 percent in 2000), compared to 41 percent who say “immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents” (down from 50 percent in 2000).

Note, however, that while sentiment has been turning negative on the burden/strengthen question since 2000, levels of negative sentiment today are about whether they were in 1997 and are still a bit lower than they were in the 1994–96 period.

Note also that positive sentiment about the characteristics of Asian and, particularly, Latino immigrants has been increasing over the last decade or so and that, today, according to a Pew analysis, positive sentiment about immigrants is strongest in precisely those areas where immigrants are the most common. Finally, the public overwhelmingly sees illegal, not legal, immigration as the more serious problem—by 60 percent to 4 percent in the Pew poll. And in a Kaiser Family Foundation survey in August, 2004, 42 percent said legal immigrants are good for the country, while only 23 percent said they are harmful. But they expressed negative attitudes about illegal immigrants by a margin of 54 percent to 18 percent.

2. The public generally believes that immigrants don’t displace American citizens from jobs. In a very typical result, the Pew poll found 65 percent saying immigrants take jobs Americans don’t want, rather than take jobs away from American citizens (24 percent).

3. On the other hand, the public does believe immigration depresses wages. In a December 2005 Gallup poll, by margins of 52 percent to 42 percent for legal immigrants and 60 percent to 32 percent for illegal immigrants, the public thought immigrants mostly hurt the economy by driving down wages for other workers rather than mostly helped the economy by providing low-cost labor.

4. The public overwhelmingly wants tougher action to keep illegal immigrants out of the country. In the Time poll cited above, 82 percent of the public says the United States isn’t doing enough to keep illegal immigrants from crossing into the country. That’s very consistent with other results from recent polls. And, in the most recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 71 percent said they would be more likely to vote for a candidate who favored tighter controls on illegal immigration.

5. But there is little enthusiasm for an enforcement approach that focuses exclusively on illegal immigrants themselves and removing them from the country, especially when posed against alternatives. In the Pew poll, only 27 percent said illegal immigrants already here should be required to return home, compared to 32 percent who said they should be allowed to stay permanently and 32 percent who said they should be granted temporary worker status. And, in the same poll, 49 percent said the best way to reduce illegal immigration from Mexico was to penalize employers, compared to 33 percent who chose increasing border patrols and 9 percent who favored building more fences.

6. The public is open to a guest worker program for illegal immigrants and to making it easier for them to obtain citizenship, but only if certain strict conditions are met. For example, if you just ask, with no further specifications, whether we should make it easier for illegal immigrants to become legal workers, as Quinnipiac University recently did, you get a negative response, 54 percent against/41 percent for. And you get an even more negative response on whether we should make it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens, 62 percent against/32 percent for.

But that initial reaction turns around, if it sounds like helping illegal immigrants to get legal worker status or to become citizens isn’t a free lunch for those who broke the law. In the Time magazine poll, they described making it easier for illegal immigrants to become legal workers as “allowing illegal immigrants already working in the United States to register as guest workers for a fixed period of time, so the government could keep track of them.” That gets a 79 percent to 18 percent positive response.

Similarly, the Time poll framed making it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens as “allowing illegal immigrants now in this country to earn U.S. citizenship if they learn to speak English, have a job and pay taxes.” That’s supported by the public by a very wide 78 percent to 21 percent margin.

Another example, also from the Time poll, posed the legal worker issue this way: “Two different approaches have been suggested to deal with illegal immigrants. Please tell me which comes closest to your views. (1) Make illegal immigration a crime and not allow anyone who entered the country illegally to work or stay in the United States under any circumstances. OR, (2) Allow illegal immigrants to get temporary work visas so the government can track them and allow them to earn permanent residence after six years if they learn English, pay a fine, pay any back taxes, and have no criminal record..” That produces a 72 percent to 25 percent majority for the second option.

To sum up, the public favors a tough, but not punitive, approach to the problem of containing illegal immigration and is willing to consider fairly generous approaches to the illegal immigrants already here, provided they feel expectations for these immigrants are high and that they will play by the rules. “Tough, but fair” is a reasonable summary of their position.

We shall see whether either political party is able to harness the “tough, but fair” public to their agenda on the very contentious immigration issue.