America's Immigration Stalemate: Conflicted Policies

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on June 19, 2012

An immigration datum buried deep inside a New York Times-CBS political poll is a timely reminder of America's immigration stalemate. The poll was conducted from May 31 to June 6 and primarily focused on the Supreme Court and its upcoming health care decision.

But reading through the poll, one comes to Question 18:

18. Which comes closest to your view about illegal immigrants who are currently working in the U.S.? 1. They should be allowed to stay in their jobs, and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship; OR 2. They should be allowed to stay in their jobs only as temporary guest workers, but NOT to apply for U.S. citizenship; OR 3. They should be required to leave their jobs and leave the U.S.

That question is striking because it contains three options, not the usual two, such as a "pathway to citizenship" vs. deportation, or the even more reductionist, singular option question "Do you favor or oppose a pathway to legalization for illegal immigrants?"

The importance of the Times question is not to be found in any assumption that respondents are giving thorough answers based on thoughtful reflection. Most respondents lack a wide base of factual information about immigration and would probably have trouble correctly gauging how many legal immigrants the United States admits each year. So responses to such questions are most likely a mix of naïve candor, "conventional wisdom" that they have encountered, and the conflicted feelings of sympathetic support for those trying to build a better life and disapproval of those who don't follow America's immigration laws to gain legal entry.

It is conventional, but often forgotten, "wisdom" that every immigration poll question is a snapshot that summarizes a much more complex reality beneath the surface of the questions asked. But it is more than that. It is also a window into that complexity that is either more or less open, depending on how the question is asked and the range of possibilities allowed in any answer. The more open the window, the more we can see. Questions asked also reflect an angle of view that is either fully frontal, taking wide swaths of it into account, or narrowly constructed, so that one gets a very thin, distorted slice of public views about a particular immigration issue.

The Times question demonstrates these points nicely. So to the questions of what respondents would do regarding "illegal immigrants who are currently working in the U.S.", respondents said the following:

Stay and apply for citizenship Stay as guest workers Required to leave jobs & U.S.DK/NA
43 21 32 3

These three broad categories can be labeled "legalization", "limited legal work status", and "required departure". As a rough estimate of public sentiment at this point in time, after years of contentious immigration debate, we can say this: A majority of Americans do not prefer to legalize 11-12 million immigrants and their families who are living and working in the United States in violation of American immigration laws.

Yes, a plurality of Americans is in favor of legalization, but a majority favors the two non-legalization options. And this is true of every year in which the question has been asked by the Times.

What these numbers reflect about the emotional state of the American public regarding immigration is worth considering as the 2012 presidential election campaign begins in earnest.

NEXT: Beneath America's Immigration Stalemate: Conflicted Emotions