Pew Research Center Tracks Public Opinion on Immigration Reform

As 2009 winds down, the health care reform debate still occupies center stage, and with mid-term elections approaching in the fall of 2010, it is difficult to predict whether Congress might take up an immigration reform bill before next November. A recent article by Scott Keeler of the Pew Research Center makes clear that the public is not clamoring for immigration reform – beset as it is with economic worries, high unemployment, and concerns about health care and two foreign wars. (See Where the Public Stands on Immigration Reform, by Scott Keeler, Pew Research Center Publications, Nov 23, 2009). If anything, public interest in the issue is trending downward, according to Pew Center statistics: concern about illegal immigration – the hottest of the hot-button issues – has dropped, with 41 percent of the public agreeing, in January 2009, that illegal immigration should be a “top priority” for the new administration and Congress, ten points below the bare majority that agreed with this statement a year before, and 14 points less than in 2007.

Nonetheless, according to the Pew Center, a solid majority of the public – 63 percent – still favors a main objective of immigration reform: to create a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants. Although this is the same percentage that favored a “path to citizenship” in 2007, when the last push for immigration reform foundered, the Pew Center’s recent data indicate that the partisan divide has widened in the past two years. Once evenly split, with nearly as many Republicans as Democrats favoring a path to citizenship, the public is now more sharply divided on the issue, with only 50 percent of Republicans in favor, as opposed to 73 percent of Democrats.

The GOP has led the charge for increased enforcement of immigration law, and has found broad public – though not unqualified – support for its position. The Pew Center found that 73 percent of the public still favors limiting the number of immigrants entering the United States, and most favor enhanced border security measures. However, the public remains divided about the wisdom of a border fence, and few appear to support mass deportations of illegal immigrants.

It remains to be seen whether opposition to immigration reform may turn out to be a potent political weapon in the hands of GOP strategists. As the Pew Center article notes, “…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.'” Still, the Pew Center’s Scott Keeler cautions that the GOP must tread carefully, to avoid antagonizing the growing bloc of Hispanic voters, who supported the 2008 Democratic ticket by a margin of more than two to one.

For its part, the public remains deeply conflicted about the role of immigrants, according to the Pew Center article. On the one hand, the public credits immigrants with having good family values and a strong work ethic, and people say they appreciate the cultural contributions immigrants make to our society. On the other hand, the Pew Center says, “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.”

Taken together, these factors do not provide much basis for predictions as to when the immigration debate may resume in earnest, and what the ultimate contours of the reform legislation will be. At this writing, the only thing that appears certain is that the process will be highly contentious as the nation, and our elected representatives, grapple with the difficult policy trade-offs – and the public’s conflicted views – about how open our doors ought to be. We will keep our readers posted as these developments unfold.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.