Anatomy of a Misleading Immigration Poll, Pt. 1

By Stanley Renshon on February 7, 2014

The president's view and that of his allies is that the real stumbling block to immigration reform is "politics," defined literally as the process by which House Republicans express their views in opposition to the Senate's massive immigration plan.

According to the president, "You've got the majority of the American public who are committed to immigration reform and support a pathway to citizenship for those who don't have it." He repeated the same point in his State of the Union Address.

This formulation elides the difference between supporting (if asked and depending how asked) and wanting. When asked, the public will support various permutations of revisions to our current immigration laws, but changing those laws is nowhere near the top of their concerns. In fact, it is near the bottom at 4 percent. (see Q. 20, here.)

Moreover, it turns out that if you ask different questions, you gain a very different picture of what the public actually prefers.

Americans overwhelmingly want immigration level kept at the same or lower levels, but this is not what the president means by reform.

Americans overwhelming want the country's immigration laws enforced by requiring business to check the legal status of their workers (83 percent) and support spending more money on border control (67 percent), but that too is not what the president means by reform.

Even the president's assertion that a majority of the American public supports a pathway to citizenship is a contingent truth, with many caveats and puzzles unremarked upon in the service of furthering the president's preferences.

Consider a recent poll released by the Public Religion Research Institute. One of that poll's findings was that 63 percent of respondents supported creating a path to citizenship for illegal migrants living in the United States, "provided they meet certain requirements."

Numerous news organizations and commentators picked up that factoid. The New York Times headline exclaimed, "In Report, 63% Back Way to Get Citizenship". The story went on to report that, "Sixty percent of Republicans, 57 percent of independents and 73 percent of Democrats favor a pathway to citizenship, according to the report."

The Times forgot to mention the "providing they meet certain requirements" part.

So did other news organizations that picked up that number. One noted, "A poll released Monday by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute found that most Americans – including a majority of Republicans – support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. "

Here is the NBC Latino version; they too forgot the caveat:

At a time when the prospects of the House taking up immigration reform legislation any time soon do not look too promising a new poll finds a solid majority of Americans favor a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

That same error of omission was made by a poster at Sean Hannity's web site, who wrote, "63% is a pretty solid majority of the public in support of immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship. Just another issue that the GOP is totally out of sync with what the clear majority of the population want?"

No, actually, it is not.

Next: Anatomy of a Misleading Immigration Poll, Pt. 2