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A. Public Opinion | matthewsimmigration

A. Public Opinion

It has been suggested by certain scholars of political science that the politics of immigration in liberal democracies exhibit strong leanings toward broadly expansionist and inclusive policies.  In the United States, this is due to romanticized interpretations of the country’s immigration history, which in turn molds popular attitudes towards migration, and can also be attributable to the features of liberal democracy itself.  Liberal democracies are systems characterized by free constitutions founded on individual rights, competitive party systems, and regular elections.  The optimality of policies in such political systems is therefore located in the preferences of individual citizen-voters.  The optimal immigration policy, by this criterion, is that preferred by the median voter where voters are utility-maximizers with complete information. 117  However, these assumptions, in combination with the deeply divided public debate over comprehensive immigration reform, create a curious conundrum.  If cosmopolitan liberals in democratic societies tend toward openness and inclusiveness, what factors - in addition to the "economic losers" factor addressed supra, are contributing to the immigration squabble?  An important next step in this study is to therefore analyze the predominant public opinion in response to the popular policy concepts being touted in the media and promoted by Congress.  With the understanding that public opinion matters a great deal in any particular legislative issue, advocates on both sides of the immigration dividing line have gathered together a series of public opinion polling data in the wake of the 2006 reform debates and year-end Congressional elections.  Brief descriptions of each of these concepts are followed by the public’s general reactions as measured by the most reputable polls on the subject of immigration reform.

 

Popular Policy Concepts

 

The juxtaposed sides of the immigration debate have largely rallied behind vague policy concepts rather than a best-choice longitudinal solution targeting immigration as a comprehensive and holistic issue.  These efforts are unreasonable in that they rely on variant abstract yet emotive conceptualizations of "shut-door" and "open-door," respectively, which conjures individual associations with personal security on the one hand and welcoming openness on the other.  While shut-door and open-door are disturbingly simplistic and unworkable, they are wonderful representatives of the political gesturing that has dominated the recent immigration landscape.  These propositions have grown in stature and support not because of an inherent gullibility or ignorance of United States policy-makers but because they are viewed by elected officials as politically digestible solutions to the problem.

As described in the preceding sections, political feasibility is the key to successful immigration reform and constitutes the single most frustrating element of the equation separating optimal policy reform proposals from optimal policy reform implementation.  Largely in response to 9/11 and its political posturing aftermath, more than 50 bills on immigration reform have been introduced in the current Congress. 118  On the expansionist side, these policy concepts have manifested themselves in a variety of forms including a general amnesty, a new temporary guest-worker program, and an earned legalization program.  In opposition, the restrictionist side advocates for tighter border controls and a comprehensive internal crackdown.

Amnesty

The proposition for amnesty is rooted in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (hereinafter, "IRCA"), under which temporary resident status was acquired by millions of undocumented immigrants who were living and working in the United States since before January 1, 1982.  Once temporary residence was obtained, these migrants could then apply to adjust their status to that of permanent resident by applying through the existing regular legal channels.  In 1994, another type of amnesty program was ushered in under Section 245(i) of the INA, 119 which allowed for undocumented migrants otherwise ineligible for permanent residence to adjust their status from within the United States upon the approval of an immigrant visa petition and the payment of a $1,000.00 penalty (in addition to other qualifiers, such as the immediate availability of an immigrant visa in the preference category under which the visa application was approved).  While the 245(i) provision sunset on April 30, 2001, individuals may still be "grandfathered" under its protection with a qualifying approvable immigrant visa filed or approved prior to the sunset date and proof of physical presence in the United States on December 21, 2000 (the date on which 245(i) was most recently extended under the Legal Immigration Family Equity Act 120).

In the spirit of IRCA and 245(i), another general amnesty has been called for by certain expansionist groups for over a decade and pre-9/11 immigration talks between Presidents Bush and Fox gave hope to many that this amnesty would manifest, at least with respect to Mexicans.  After 9/11, however, the mood of the country obviously and dramatically changed and advocates for full amnesty have yet to regain a respected voice in the immigration reform debate.  Restrictionist critics of amnesty proposals point to an underlying reasoning that amnesty rewards illegal behavior (i.e., the idea that if one enters illegally and stays hidden long enough in the shadow economy, amnesty will come in time), that it penalizes those migrants who chose to follow the legal routes to permanent residence and have been waiting for years outside the United States for a visa to become available, and that it encourages further illegal behaviors (e.g., dramatic increases in undocumented migration following IRCA is well-documented 121).  Mark Krikorian (Executive Director at the Center for Immigration Studies) goes a step further, asserting that "amnesties for [undocumented migrants] have facilitated terrorism.  Mahmud ‘The Red’ Abouhalima, a leader of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, was legalized as a Seasonal Agricultural Worker as part of the 1986 amnesty, which allowed him to travel abroad, including several trips to Afghanistan, where he received terrorist training." 122

 

Earned Adjustment and Naturalization

The expansionist-leaning proposition for an earned adjustment program would allow undocumented workers already in the United States to earn legal permanent resident status based on years of work and other productive behaviors.  This differs only slightly from the amnesty proposal in that an earned adjustment benefit is exactly that - earned, rather than given.  An earned adjustment migrant would be granted legal status and issued a temporary worker visa immediately and would become eligible to adjust his or her nonimmigrant status to that of immigrant status and, ultimately, if desired, to that of naturalized citizen after a certain period of time and after applying for same through existing processing channels.  Rather than receiving preferential treatment for having violated the country’s immigration laws, these individuals would be processed along with other legally qualified applicants, in the order in which their applications are submitted and placed in the adjudication queue.  Restrictionist critics of the earned adjustment program view it in the same general way as they do the amnesty proposal - that while earned adjustment does not necessarily disadvantage those in the legal backlog line, it nevertheless serves to reward illegal behavior and to encourage further illegal behavior by withholding the discipline attached to it in the governing statutes and regulations.

 

Temporary Guest-Worker Program

 

As proposed by the Bush Administration and backed by expansionists in Congress, a temporary guest-worker program would allow undocumented migrants already in the United States to legalize their status to that of nonimmigrant, and to remain for a limited period of time with work authorization.  The initial period of stay for each legalized nonimmigrant has been generally proposed at three years which would be renewable for an additional three-year period.  The temporary guest-worker visa would allow unlimited multiple entries for as long as the visa is valid and would allow uninterrupted employment mobility (hereinafter, "portability") between employers and industry sectors of the U.S. economy.  It is argued that portability is essential so that workers can exercise the full freedom to change jobs in order to realize maximum pay and working conditions in line with free-market labor principles.  On a macro-scale, this portability would allow the supply of labor to shift between sectors to meet changing demand.

 

The temporary guest-worker program would also confer upon migrants the right of "national treatment" or the same legal protections extended by law to native workers.  This new form of visa would protect migrant workers from the abuses of past temporary work arrangements that tied workers to specific employers, which made visa-holders overly dependent upon the goodwill of their employers and in the extreme led to forms of indentured servitude to unscrupulous employers.  The temporary guest-worker visa would also allow its holders to bring nuclear family members such as spouses and minor, dependent children with them but would prevent the sponsorship of more distant relatives inclusive of siblings and parents.

 

Crackdown and Removal En Masse

 

An undocumented migration crackdown would, in its most extreme form, involve the building of a 2,000-mile fence from San Diego, California to Brownsville, Texas, the hiring of tens of thousands of agents to patrol the southern border (in addition to the National Guard units recently deployed to assist the USCBP Border Patrol), and the deployment of thousands of additional USICE agents throughout the mainland to raid workplaces, fine employers, and hunt down and deport millions of undocumented workers.  The crackdown approach would also require every United States citizen and foreign national non-citizen to carry a national identification card or to register in a national database as a precondition to work authorization.  Restrictionists propose a combined crackdown solution of reducing the number of new undocumented migrants coming in through upgraded enforcement and increasing the number leaving through removal; punishing businesses for the willful employment of undocumented workers; denying undocumented migrants access to bank accounts, drivers licenses, mortgages and higher education; tracking down and deporting foreign visitors who overstay visas; and prosecuting and imprisoning those who repeatedly sneak across the border. 123

 

The Polls

 

A Time-SRBI (Schulman, Ronca & Bucuvalas, Inc.) national poll of 1,002 adults, conducted in January of 2006, reveals that three out of four (76 percent) Americans favor allowing undocumented migrants currently in the United States to pursue eventual citizenship under the conditions that they learn English, maintain employment and pay taxes.  A majority (56 percent) of those polled think undocumented migrants are taking jobs that United States citizens do not want or cannot do.  Seventy-three percent favor a guest-worker program for undocumented migrants, with a quarter (23 percent) opposing.  The opinions are split, however, on whether these individuals should be eligible to register for the program in the United States (50 percent) or if they should be required to return to their home countries to apply (46 percent).  Two-thirds (64 percent) favor granting temporary visas to migrants not currently in the United States to do seasonal or temporary work, with the condition that they ultimately return to their countries of origin. 124

 

A Washington Post-ABC poll of 1,007 adult Americans, conducted in December of 2005, reveals that 61 percent of those polled think undocumented migrants currently living and working in the United States should be able to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status, whereas 36 percent think these workers should be deported.  According to this poll, the strong support for a new approach to immigration reform held up across the board in that men, women, whites, blacks, older, younger, educated and less educated adults all appear to agree that removal is not the solution to the vexing issue of what to do with undocumented migrants.  The poll shows a near-even split among Republicans, with 55 percent supporting undocumented migrants being able to keep their jobs and to apply for legal status, with 43 percent supporting removal. 125

 

A Field Poll of 500 California adults, conducted in February of 2006 in both English and Spanish, reveals that by a wide margin (65 percent to 27 percent), Californians favor a proposal to reform immigration laws by creating a temporary guest-worker program for undocumented migrants that would legalize their status.  This poll shows a majority of registered Democrats (67 percent to 28 percent) and Independents (62 percent to 26 percent) and a plurality of registered Republicans (49 percent to 40 percent) in favor of a temporary guest-worker program. 126

 

A poll of 807 "likely" Republican voters conducted by the Tarrance Group for the Manhattan Institute, conducted in October of 2005, reveals that more than seven out of 10 (72 percent) of those polled favor an earned legalization immigration reform plan that would provide resources to greatly increase border security; impose much tougher penalties on employers who hire undocumented workers; create a system in which undocumented migrants could come forward and register, pay a fine and receive a temporary worker permit; and provide these temporary workers with a multi-year path to citizenship, if they meet certain requirements like living crime-free, learning English and paying taxes.  According to this poll, support for this reform plan stands at above 65 percent with key demographics like seniors (67 percent), rural residents (71 percent), Texas residents (76 percent) and Midwest residents (68 percent).  Only 21 percent of those polled oppose this reform plan and seven percent are unsure.  Seventy-one percent said they would be more likely to support their member of Congress or a candidate for Congress who supported this reform plan, with only 17 percent indicating they would be less likely to support a member or candidate on this platform. 127

 

A poll of 800 likely voters nationwide, conducted in March of 2005 by the Tarrance Group and Lake Snell Perry Mermin Decision Research for the National Immigration Forum and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, revealed that there is overwhelming support among likely voters for bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform legislation.  Seventy-five percent of likely voters favor a proposal that provides registration for undocumented workers as temporary guest-workers, temporary work visas for seasonal and temporary workers, a multi-year process for legal residency, no preferential treatment for citizenship for newly registered workers, tougher penalties for workers and employers who violate these laws, and a priority on reuniting close family members.  Support for this proposal was solid across party lines with 78 percent of Republicans, 77 percent of Independents and 70 percent of Democrats; across regional lines with 77 percent of Red State voters, 79 percent of Blue State voters and 72 of Purple State voters; and across demographic lines with 78 percent of whites, 67 of blacks and 70 percent of Hispanics. 128

 

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and the Pew Hispanic Center released a national survey indicating that ordinary Americans are deeply divided over how to handle the estimated 11 million undocumented migrants currently living in the United States.  The poll, conducted between February and March of 2006, found that 53 percent of the 2,000 people surveyed believed that undocumented migrants should be required to return home, while 40 percent said they should be granted some type of legal status that allows them to stay in the United States.  Forty-nine percent said that increasing penalties for employers who hire undocumented migrants would be most effective in reducing illegal immigration. One-third preferred increasing the number of USCBP Border Patrol agents while nine percent favored the construction of fences along the Mexican border.  While 65 percent said that immigrants mostly take jobs that Americans do not want, the survey found that a growing number of people believe immigrants are an economic burden, taking jobs and housing and creating strains on health care.  And 58 percent of those surveyed felt that most recent immigrants do not learn English within a reasonable amount of time after entering the country as permanent residents. 129

 

According to the Voter/Consumer Research poll conducted in May of 2006 for the Republican National Committee, candidates who talk about comprehensive reform are more successful than those who focus only on border security.  Also, approximately 71 percent of voters want comprehensive reform, including a temporary worker program and legal status, not inaction.  Support for comprehensive reform is even higher among Republican base voters - 80 percent of conservatives. 130  Approximately 75 percent of likely voters, 38 percent intensely, support comprehensive immigration reform legislation that would include a requirement for undocumented workers living in the United States to come forward and register as guest-workers, and that would provide these newly-registered workers with a multi-year process for legal residency and eventual citizenship. 131

 

A national survey of 1,000 registered voters drawn randomly from throughout the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, with demographics of the sample consistent with recent national surveys of registered voters, was conducted by Ayres McHenry & Associates, Inc. (funded by The American Hotel and Lodging Educational Foundation) in June of 2006.  This poll indicates that voters overwhelmingly want an immigration reform bill passed in 2006.  More than eight in 10 registered voters think it is important to pass legislation combating undocumented immigration.  More than seven in ten voters would rather have Congress pass a bill that includes border security, employer enforcement and a temporary-worker program rather than to pass no bill at all.  More than six in ten voters would rather have Congress pass a bill that includes border security, employer enforcement, a temporary-worker program and a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants who are already here rather than to pass no bill at all.  If Congress deadlocks and cannot reach agreement on immigration reform, voters will be less likely to vote for Republican candidates for House and Senate this November by a two-to-one margin.  Seventy-six percent favor imposing significant fines on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.  Sixty-eight percent favor giving undocumented migrants who are already in the United States a path to become U.S. citizens if they pay back taxes, pay a fine, learn English and do not have a criminal record.  Sixty-seven percent favor using National Guard troops to help guard the border with Mexico.  Sixty-six percent favor adopting a temporary-worker program where people could come to the U.S. to work for a period of time, but would then have to return to their home countries.  Thirty-four percent favor forgiving two of five years of back taxes for undocumented migrants who want to become citizens.  Overall, the preferred reform option includes border security, employer enforcement, a temporary-worker program and a path to citizenship. 132

 

In a Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted 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.  In a Gallup poll conducted in December of 2005, by margins of 52 percent to 42 percent for legal immigrants and 60 percent to 32 percent for undocumented migrants, the public thought migrants mostly hurt the economy by driving down wages for other workers rather than mostly helped the economy by providing low-cost labor. 133  In a subsequent Gallup poll of 2,032 adults nationwide conducted in June of 2006, 66 percent of respondents felt that undocumented migrants cost American taxpayers too much by using government services like public education and medical services; however, 67 percent said that, on the whole, immigration is a good thing for America, with 74 percent believing undocumented migrants take jobs Americans simply do not want. 134

 

In a Harris Interactive Poll conducted online in April of 2006, among a nationwide cross section of 2,377 adults, nearly 75 percent of respondents said children of U.S. citizens should receive favorable treatment in order to immigrate into the United States and 67 percent said spouses should receive favorable treatment.  Approximately 66 percent of those polled said U.S. immigration policy should not give preference to people from some countries over people from other countries, compared with 21 percent who said the U.S. policy should give preference based on nationality.  Among the factors to be considered when admitting immigrants to the U.S., 56 percent said fluency in English should be considered, and 51 percent said job skills should be taken into account.  Forty-six percent said people with specialized technical skills, where there are shortages of such skills domestically, should be given preferential treatment to immigrate, with 35 percent favoring doctors, nurses and teachers, 31 percent favoring entrepreneurs, 23 percent favoring people with graduate degrees, 22 percent favoring agricultural workers, 20 percent favoring people willing to do "unpleasant, low paying jobs Americans do not want to do," 12 percent favoring factory workers, and nine percent favoring professional athletes.  About a third of those polled said a migrant’s level of education and country of origin should be factors, and only six percent said a migrant’s religion should be considered. 135

 

In a Democracy Corps poll of 1,000 "likely voters" conducted in April of 2006, 73 percent of respondents strongly favored a requirement that immigrants learn English and basics about American culture and government before becoming naturalized U.S. citizens.  Sixty percent strongly favored mandating employers of immigrants to participate in an improved electronic system to verify that employees are legal workers. 136  And in a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of 1,321 adults nationwide conducted in June of 2006, 46 percent of respondents favored a guest-worker program that would give a temporary visa and a conditional path to permanent residence to non-citizens who want to work legally in the United States; 67 percent favored allowing undocumented migrants who have been living and working in the United States for a number of years, and who do not have a criminal record, to start on a path to citizenship by registering, paying a fine, getting fingerprinted, and learning English; 44 percent favor toughening immigration laws by making it a felony to be in the United States illegally and establishing mandatory prison sentences for reentering the United States illegally after having already been deported; and 58 percent favor the tougher enforcement and guest-worker program combination of current Congressional proposals. 137

 

Finally, a survey of 461 adult Americans who watched President Bush’s speech presented on May 15, 2006, concerning White House immigration goals, conducted for CNN by Opinion Research Corporation, revealed that 79 percent of speech-watchers said they had a "very positive" or "somewhat positive" reaction to President Bush’s speech, with 67 percent saying they had a positive opinion of the actual immigration policies.  As to specific proposals, 75 percent favored the plan to send National Guard troops to the Mexican border, 69 percent favored the guest-worker program proposal, and 74 percent favored the proposal to allow undocumented migrants to remain in the United States and earn their way to citizenship. 138

 

Analysis of this polling data indicates strong public support for legalizing the status of currently undocumented migrants who have lived and worked in the United States for several years, along with a mechanism to earn status as a permanent resident and, ultimately, a naturalized citizen.  In terms of earning one’s status as a permanent resident, public opinion would require, first and foremost, English fluency, followed by the payment of back taxes where applicable, maintaining gainful employment and remaining crime-free, and, lastly, paying a financial penalty.  There is also strong public support for expanding temporary guest-worker programs for intending migrants who do not currently reside in the United States, and for giving immigration priorities to the immediate family members of U.S. citizens.  Concerning the weighted importance of various debated immigration issues, public favor falls foremost on the obstruction of further undocumented migration flows through a combined mechanism of enhanced border security and U.S. employer sanctions, with only a secondary interest in penalizing undocumented migrants themselves.

 

While an understanding of public opinion garnered through an analysis of polling data is helpful, it is also important to consider that citizens in liberal democracies tend to be rationally ignorant of many issues because the incentives to become informed of public policy issues like immigration often fail to override the costs of obtaining the information necessary to appropriately analyze the facts and to form rational opinions.  Gary Freeman (Associate Professor of Government at The University of Texas at Austin) asserts that while it may appear that immigration is one of those highly salient and emotive issues about which voters would feel strongly and with respect to which they would develop well-informed opinions, serious barriers exist to the acquisition of information about immigration. 139  He points to the scarcity and ambiguity of official government data; the constrained discourse over immigration in liberal democracies, where the boundaries of legitimate discussion of immigration policy are narrow and exempt certain arguments such as those over the ethnic composition of migrant streams, and subjecting those who criticize liberal policies to abusive charges of racism; 140 and to the sympathetic bias towards migrants in the academy, wherein he finds that "immigration is one policy on which liberal sociologists and anthropologists and more conservative political scientists and economists tend to agree." 141

 

Given the costs of information about immigration and the distortions introduced in the public debate over immigration policy, Freeman believes that public opinion in liberal democracies is slower to mobilize and crystallize, and more indifferent to immigration, than it would be if more and better information were available.  He further asserts that while individual citizens may affect the government’s immigration decisions only indirectly at elections, the election issues are framed by political parties that do not normally take clear, strong or divergent positions on immigration issues.  Instead, immigration politics, according to Freeman, are dominated by the organized public, and the direction of policy is mostly a function of which fragments of the public have the incentives and resources to organize around immigration issues. 142  These ideas steer the present analysis of political feasibility in the direction of another level of immigration power as manifest in the United States’ brand of liberal democracy in what are typically referred to as "interests."

117 Gary P. Freeman, "Modes of Immigration Politics in Liberal Democratic States," International Migration Review 29, no. 4 (1995): 881-902.

 

118 Lindsay Littlefield and Ann Morse, "Federal Immigration Reform Bills."

 

119 Pub. L. No. 103-317 §506(b), 108 Stat. 1724, amended by Pub. L. No. 105-119 §111(b) and Pub. L. No. 106-553 §1502(a)(1)(B), codified at I.N.A. §245(i)(1)(B)(i), 8 U.S.C. §1255(i)(1)(B)(i).

 

120 Legal Immigration Family Equity (LIFE) Act (From Public Law 106-553, Making Appropriations for the Government of the District of Columbia and Other Activities Chargeable in Whole or in Part Against the Revenues of Said District of Columbia for the Fiscal Year Ending September 30, 2001 and for Other Purposes).

 

121 e.g., Pia M. Orrenius; Madeline Zavodny, "Do Amnesty Programs Reduce Undocumented Immigration? Evidence from IRCA," Demography, Vol. 40, No. 3. (Aug., 2003), 437-450.

 

122 Krikorian, "Dealing With Illegal Immigrants."

 

123 Krikorian, "Dealing With Illegal Immigrants."

 

124 Douglas G. Rivlin, "Public Support for Comprehensive Immigration Reform."

 

125 Ibid.

 

126 Ibid.

 

127 Ibid.

 

128 Ibid.

 

129 Hulse and Swarns, "Conservatives Stand Firm."

 

130 Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Now: Americans Want and Deserve Economic and National Security" (citing Voter/Consumer Research poll and Republican National Committee Memorandum by Matthew Dowd).

 

131 Ibid. (citing Tarrance/Lake-Snell poll).

 

132 Whit Ayres, "Memorandum: The Importance of Reaching Agreement on Immigration Reform."

 

133 Ruy Teixeira, "What Does the Public Want on Immigration?"

 

134 PollingReport.com, "Immigration Polls."

 

135 The Wall Street Journal, "Majority Says Nationality Shouldn’t Be a Factor In Immigration Policy," April 26, 2006 (citing The Harris Poll).

 

136 Democracy Corps, "Polling Results, Polling the Nations: The Ultimate Survey Database."

 

137 PollingReport.com, "Immigration Polls."

 

138 Mark Preston, "Bush gains support, but not from his ‘target audience."

 

139 Freeman, "Modes of Immigration Politics."

 

140 Ibid. (citing Van Dijk, 1992).

 

141 Ibid. (citing J. Simon, 1989).

 

142 Ibid.

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