The hidden tsunami of new immigrants, both legal and illegal, have been operating under the public's attention radar for many decades. In part this reflects the fact that immigration is not, ordinarily, a high-attention issue for most Americans. As a result, ordinary Americans don't have a great deal of factual information about the substantive foundations of the many complex elements that make up immigration policy.
For example, before the 2007 and 2013 efforts at passing immigration legislation, and before it became conventional wisdom that there are 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, Americans had very little accurate information about the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States. In two major surveys, respondents estimated that illegal migrants made up 21 percent of the country's population, when in fact the number estimated by the Pew Center at that time was 3 percent.
The lack of specifically accurate information about this basic fact is, however, neither surprising nor necessarily worrisome for many reasons.
First, in order to get to an accurate number, respondents would have to have to know the actual population of the United States as well as the estimates of the immigrant population — from a think tank publication with which most Americans are not familiar.
Honestly, it's not at all clear that many of my fellow professors of political science would have done much better.
Second, there is no reason to expect Americans to have a great deal of specific information about the range of policy issues that the country deals with, including immigration. Knowing and understanding a policy's past history, keeping up with basic knowledge and analysis, being aware of unfolding events, and interpreting all these elements even in one area like immigration takes substantial effort. It is simply impossible for ordinary American to do this, or to expect them to when even so-called experts and certainly many pundits and commentators seem to fail this test as well.
Third, the lack of specific information about immigration is part of a more general dearth of specific policy information in many areas of American political life. As professor Phil Converse, one of the most perceptive analysts of American public opinion put it, "The two simplest truths about the distribution of political information in modern electorates is that the mean is low and the variance is high," (See p. 331 here) meaning that the average person has little basic and accurate policy information and people vary enormously in the amount they actually have.
Ironically, even the legislators who were in the vanguard pushing the Senate's 2013 immigration legislation seemed unfamiliar with the details. One report noted that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — a Republican member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight", the closed group that developed the Senate immigration bill and one of 14 Republicans who voted for the bill's final passage — was unaware that the legislation he helped usher through the Senate allows a person to forge up to two passports without penalty. Neither did another member of the group, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
One can sympathize with the effort it takes to master the details of a 1,000-page immigration bill, although one might well expect that those who are vouching for such an important and far-reaching bill would be familiar with its details. In fact, this is not the case and the Senate immigration bill is not the only instance of legislators voting for massive bills with little information about their contents.
Why, these senators who are assumed to be, and present themselves as, deeply immersed in the details of the immigration legislation they signed on to, but in reality are not, sound just like those low-information generalists that ordinary Americans are often accused of being.