Beneath America's Immigration Stalemate: Conflicted Emotions

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on June 20, 2012

The numerous issues that arise from the fact that the United States now has between 11 and 12 million people living here with no legal basis for doing so has created strong currents of conflicting emotions in the American public. On one hand, Americans sympathize with those who want a better life for themselves and their children. On the other hand, they have little sympathy for those who break the rules for their own advantage. Furthermore, they are upset with their government's inability or disinclination to control the nation's borders.

You can find ample evidence of these conflicted feelings in almost any set of immigration polls you care to examine. For example, a 2011 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll asked:

What should be the main focus of the U.S. government in dealing with the issue of illegal immigration: developing a plan that would allow illegal immigrants who have jobs to become legal U.S. residents, or developing a plan for stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. and for deporting those already here?

Fifty-five percent said that the emphasis should be on developing a plan to stop the flow of illegal immigration and deport those already here, while 42 percent said the emphasis should be on developing a plan for legal residency.

Yet that very same survey asked:

How much sympathy do you have for illegal immigrants and their families? Would you say you feel very sympathetic toward them, somewhat sympathetic, somewhat unsympathetic, or very unsympathetic?

Sixty-seven percent of the respondents expressed some degree of sympathy of illegal immigrants, while 33 percent felt little sympathy for them.

And just in case Americans' feelings about their government's ability or inclination to control the country's borders is in doubt, consider this CNN/Opinion Research Corporation question asked in a 2010 poll:

In general, does the number of illegal immigrants currently in this country make you feel angry, dissatisfied but not angry, satisfied but not pleased, or pleased?

Seventy-four percent of the respondents described themselves as angry or dissatisfied with having that number of illegal immigrants living in the county.

American immigration policy is not so much broken, as legalization advocates repeatedly claim, but stuck.

At the political level it is stuck because the political parties have very different immigration policy approaches, premises, and goals. Liberals support the legalization of almost every person living and or working here in violation of our immigrations laws. Conservatives want an emphasis on enforcing immigration rules that have been democratically considered and voted into law.

This reflects an obvious political impasse, but there is something more difficult to bridge than even this profound stalemate.

American immigration policy is stuck because of the conflicted feelings of the American public. They don't like or support illegal immigration, but they do have some sympathy for their plight. And they don't like the government's failed border policies putting them into that position.

This presents a political dilemma for the country's political leaders, both Democrat and Republican. And it does so as well for both presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Each will have to figure out a way to reconcile these policy differences and the public sentiment that underlies them.

There are a number of options available in theory: (1) winner takes all; (2) wars of attrition; (3) changing hearts and minds; (4) "grand bargains"; (5) executive decree; and (6) incremental reciprocal bargains.

Some of these have already been tried and have failed (e.g. wars of attrition and "grand bargains"). Some options exist in theory, but are very unlikely to provide a means of egress from our immigration policy dilemmas (e.g., winner takes all or changing hearts and minds). Some address the impasse with a wholesale disregard for the range of views that make this issue so difficult, thus ensuring that even a "fix" that might in other circumstances garner wider support winds up being politically inflammatory (e.g., executive decree). And some have never been tried, but might well be the best route available to make progress on breaking out of America's immigration impasse (e.g., incremental reciprocal bargains).

Next: How to Break the Immigration Policy Impasse (1): Winner Takes All