The Public Religion Research Institute Strikes Again: The "Unaccompanied Children" Poll, Pt. 1

By Stanley Renshon on October 16, 2014

Faulty questions and untenable options are not the only means by which uninformative immigration poll results can be produced.

Sometimes polls don't have to resort to survey subterfuge; instead, results can be reported in a way that gives an entirely wrong and misleading impression. In doing so, they can then count on others to report what they have announced, confident that most readers will not bother to read, or think through, the actual results.

Related: Read Part Two of the Public Religion Research Institute Blog Series.

A case in point is a recent immigration survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, this time dealing with the Summer 2014 surge of children, families, and others seeking entry to the United States without authorization. The PRRI webpage announces their findings in a bold headline: "Nearly 7-in-10 Americans See Unaccompanied Children at Border as Refugees, Not Illegal Immigrants".

As is so often the case, other news reporters and writers picked up that headline, with no analysis. Typical was a Washington Post story that contained this sentence: "A July survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found 70 percent saying immigrant children should be offered shelter and support while beginning the process of determining legal status, and a similar number think they should be treated as refugees."

Well, not exactly.

The website headline, presented without nuance, clearly implied that the summer surge of illegal migrants was seen as different by most Americans — not as an ongoing inability to deter or stop illegal migration, but as essentially a humanitarian refugee crisis.

Reading several paragraphs into the article, we find this further analysis: "A majority (69 percent) of Americans say that children arriving from Central America should be treated as refugees and allowed to stay in the United States if authorities determine it is not safe for them to return to their home."

In the PRRI news release, the interested reader finds a clue to how the Institute got the results that they did, to wit: "7-in-10 prefer offering children support while cases are reviewed, over immediate deportation."

So, as they did with their earlier, patently misleading survey on Americans' view of immigration reform, they asked their questions in such a way as to stack the deck in favor of the answer one presumes they prefer.

They first ask how much respondents have heard "about the large number of children from Central America coming to the United States without their parents". Forty-nine percent say a lot, 31 percent say a little, and, surprisingly, 20 percent say "nothing at all".

This phrasing conjures up the image of children more or less traveling to the United States alone. It is a poignant, but inaccurate image. A Washington Post reporter wrote:

The "unaccompanied minors" who walked out of the brush on the banks of the Rio Grande and turned themselves into Border Patrol officers last month were not, technically, unaccompanied. ...

It's the most potent image in the current immigration crisis: Tens of thousands of Central American children on a dangerous solo exodus out of their countries. But from what I've seen reporting on this issue from the U.S. border and in Honduras, it is also somewhat misleading.

The term "Unaccompanied Alien Children," or UACs, as used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, refers to people up to age 17 who are traveling without a parent or legal guardian. It does not mean they are traveling alone.

And that is only the start of the survey's issues.

Next: The Public Religion Research Institute Strikes Again: The "Unaccompanied Children" Poll, Pt. 2