Recent Immigration Polls: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Pt. 1

By Stanley Renshon on October 8, 2014

Divining the views of the public on immigration is an exceedingly difficult task. There are always the technical questions about survey methods that need to be taken into account. Are the samples large enough? Representative enough? Are they Internet-only survey instruments or are they conducted by interviewers or are they mechanical calls?

These "technical" questions influence the reliability of the numbers we read and thus our confidence in the results. But these matters are only the proverbial tip of a very large iceberg whose major consequences are hidden in plain sight.

I am referring, of course, to how the immigration questions are worded.

There are many ways for a survey question to fail, but before getting into that it is important to first ask what the purpose of a survey question is. The answer seems obvious: to elicit accurate public views regarding an issue. However, succeeding in that rather obvious goal is no easy matter.

There is, for example, the basic question of what you actually ask, and the equally basic question of what you don't include.

Consider these two immigration options:

The best way to solve the country's illegal immigration problem is to secure our borders and arrest and deport all those who are here illegally.

The best way to solve the country's illegal immigration problem is to both secure our borders and provide an earned path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States.

This is paradoxically from a report (see p. 53) that includes in its title: "What Americans Want From Immigration Reform". Disingenuously, the survey, sponsored by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, purports to tell us what the public wants from immigration reform by giving them a choice that almost no one wants.

The options, boiled down to their essence, are: arrest and deport all illegal migrants or secure our borders and legalize all illegal aliens and give them a "path to citizenship".

The first is a nonsensical option on several grounds. First, how would DHS or ICE identify the over 11.3 million illegal migrants estimated to be in the United States as of March 2013? Neither agency has the manpower or information.

Then there are the actual logistics of arresting 11.3 million people. Where would they be held? Wouldn't they have a right to a court hearing and to be represented? And wouldn't immigration advocates be screaming as loudly as possible about the injustice, racism, and anti-immigrant stance such a move would represent? And then there is the public's emotional trauma on seeing people dragged away from their work or homes in their neighborhood and on the nightly news. It would never be tolerated, and therefore would never happen.

It is dishonest to give this as one of only two choices, because it is no choice at all. Those who designed the survey should have known it, and very likely did.

They got the results they were aiming for, namely that, according to the New York Times, "Nearly two-thirds of Americans favor giving illegal immigrants in the country an opportunity for legal status with a path to citizenship, according to a poll published Thursday by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution."

As immigration polls go, this is an ugly one, made all the more so by the fact that two ostensibly legitimate organizations lent their names to a report whose purpose was not to inform, but to manipulate.

Next: Recent Immigration Polls: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Pt. 2