On Monday, NPR reported on yet another poll asserting that Americans are clamoring to offer a "pathway to citizenship" for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. The poll, conducted for the Public Religion Research Institute, is an update on an earlier poll that was conducted in conjunction with the Brookings Institution in March. According to both polls, support for what would amount to amnesty for immigrants who broke the law remains strong despite the sluggish economy.
According to the most recent survey, 63 percent of Americans, including 60 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of Democrats, favor "providing a way for immigrants who are currently living in the United States illegally to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements" while 14 percent support allowing them to become permanent legal residents, but not citizens, and 18 percent favor a "policy that would identify and deport all immigrants living in the United States illegally". The numbers were unchanged since March save the "deport everyone" option, which declined from 21 percent to 18 percent.
Polls on immigration always seem to frame the debate to get the desired result. If you ask people: what do you prefer, giving immigrants legal status if they jump through hoops, or rounding them all up in a WW2 style mass deportation, obviously most will prefer the former. It's a little like asking people, what do you prefer: a trip to the dentist or the proctologist? I'll take the dentist, thank you very much.
Middle-ground options, if given at all, are usually similarly unattractive. This poll gave respondents three options for what to do with illegal immigrants: provide them with citizenship if they meet certain requirements; allow them to become permanent legal residents, but not citizens; or "identify and deport them". The middle-ground option here is actually very similar to the citizenship option, especially considering the fact that many migrants (perhaps around 40 percent according to a New York Times article from earlier this year) don't want to become American citizens; they just want to be able to live and work here.
There are plenty of middle ground options that I think would be more appealing to a wider swath of the electorate: no mass deportations but stronger penalties and enforcement against employers who hire illegal immigrants; allowing some, but not all, illegal immigrants to stay; and asking illegal immigrants to return to their home countries to apply for a potential amnesty are just a few suggestions that probably won't ever see the light of day because they make too much sense and undercut the case for a blanket amnesty.
Forty-one percent of those polled thought that immigration reform should be an "immediate priority" for President Obama, including 55 percent of Hispanics, with 14 percent stating that it shouldn't be a priority at all. Those numbers don't seem particularly compelling to me. After all, voters might think that dozens of issues should be an "immediate priority" for the president. If they asked, which issue would you like the president to focus most on, immigration, health care, or the economy, my sense is that the "urgency" on the immigration issue would disappear.
The American mass media portrays Hispanics as a monolithic group that is obsessed with the amnesty issue. If I had a nickel for every story I've read or listened to that asserted that the GOP needs to move to the left on immigration in order to have a chance of earning Hispanic votes, I'd be rich. Never mind the fact that exit polls from the 2012 election suggested that Latinos are most concerned with the same issues — namely the economy and health care — that other Americans care most about.
All this said, those who are concerned about the impact an amnesty would have on our economy would be foolhardy to completely dismiss this and other polls asserting that Americans want to grant legal status to illegal immigrants. With church leaders, politicians, and the media leading the amnesty cheering section, the public probably is warming to the idea of letting most, if not all illegal immigrants stay here.
The unfortunate fact is that few are asking the really hard questions. How will offering millions of illegal immigrants access to the mainstream U.S. labor pool impact already stagnant wages and a stubbornly high unemployment rate? Will an amnesty truly bring the illegal immigration problem to a conclusion or will it vindicate the decision made by those who chose to break the law and inspire more to follow in their footsteps?