Pollsters, Immigration, and the Republican Primary

By Stephen Steinlight on January 27, 2012

It's axiomatic that the nation's leading pollsters, in what amounts to a tacit conspiracy, have for years falsified their reports about the deep disquiet an overwhelming majority of the American people feel about our broken immigration system. This near-universal disinformation has played a key role in the effort on the part of the political and fiscal elite to prevent immigration from emerging as a major national political issue. With the exceptions of Zogby and Rasmussen, their carefully engineered push polls have permitted pro-amnesty presidents, politicians, pundits, clergy, activists, etc. to peddle the lie they enjoy popular support.

Those who have bothered to scrutinize the persistent bogus finding – the mysterious constant 59 percent of the American people which poll after poll finds purportedly favors amnesty – can deconstruct it effortlessly. Respondents are routinely offered a faulty dilemma that pushes them to choose amnesty. Offered some version of the choice between "Deport All" and "Amnesty," respondents grudgingly choose amnesty over a chimerical "Deport All." The fact that no one advocates mass deportation is an irrelevancy. It's the gimmick. It's there to frighten humane people into selecting a choice they abhor over one that seems fascistic. As CIS's surveys have shown, when surveys permit respondents to select the less draconian attrition or "self-deportation" option, large majorities choose it over amnesty.

That the pollsters have succeeded in thoroughly muddying the waters emerges from comments about immigration policy made by former Speaker Newt Gingrich in the Republican primary and in the amazingly uninformed commentary of the journalists covering the debates. As anyone who has watched the debates and listened to the pundits' analyses has learned, Gingrich and prominent members of the chattering class – assuming its members can be believed – have never heard of "attrition" or "self-deportation". The term "self-deportation" was greeted with a look of bewilderment followed in a nanosecond by a sneer of skepticism by Gingrich. Two days later in an interview, he asserted that Romney was "living in a fantasy land" if he imagined self-deportation could be key to solving the problem of the illegal population. It was also pilloried by several inexpert journalists as some goofy proposal Mitt Romney had suddenly pulled out of thin air.

Listening this week to a radio program on the Hispanic vote in the Florida primary on New York's NPR station, WNYC's highly regarded political analyst Brian Lehrer indicated he first heard of the "crazy idea" of self-deportation during the initial Republican debate in Florida. If further evidence of the media's disservice to the immigration debate were required – if only that were the case! – its ignorance, real or feigned, of "attrition" and "self-deportation" provides it.

"Attrition through enforcement" – translation: promoting self-deportation – has been a commonplace for several years among those engaged in the immigration debate on both sides. It is a term of art well-known to policy experts, members of Congress that deal with the issue on a regular basis, journalists with genuine expertise in immigration, and activists on all sides. Given its centrality in the immigration debate, it is hard to believe the concept has not, in fact, percolated throughout the political class and the news commentators and pundits that cover that group and the issues it addresses.

The incremental reduction of the illegal population through strict border control and the tough interior enforcement of immigration law to promote self-deportation are widely regarded to be the most effective and politically realistic policy option among those who oppose amnesty and the huge increase in legal immigration that would follow it. It is hardly a new idea. It was pioneered by Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), who first introduced the concept and terminology in 2005. Krikorian and CIS policy analysts have written a multitude of articles on the subject, many as recently as the past few months.

CIS also conducted a ground-breaking study of the practicability of attrition, "Shifting Tides: Recent Trends in the Illegal Immigrant Population". The study documented the large decline – a 12 percent reduction in the illegal immigrant population nationwide – from August of 2007, two months after the defeat of S.B. 1639, the "comprehensive immigration reform" bill that would have amnestied nearly 12 million illegal aliens, to May of the following year. Conducted before the onset of the great recession and thus eliminating economic matters as the principal motivating factor, the study shows that the chief cause of the mass self-deportation was stricter enforcement of immigration law, at the local and federal levels. Had this enforcement regime remained in effect for another three years, the problem of the illegal population – so often described as insoluble by those opposed to fixing it – could have been halved. But the election of President Obama hamstrung such efforts. Is "attrition" or "self-deportation" a foreign construct, unknown territory? Not likely.

In addition to devaluing the political currency of popular opposition to immigration policy through meaningless push-polls based on faulty dilemmas, pollsters have often employed a strategy of evasion through reticence. A classic means of spiriting the issue away is creating an arbitrary taxonomy of public policy questions that assigns it reduced salience – even when the pollster's own findings suggest the opposite treatment is appropriate.

A classic instance is the way Gallup's chooses to treat the public's concern over immigration in January 23 feature "U.S. Economy Most Toxic of 24 Issues: Scope of government and U.S. morality also rankle Americans". The article compares Gallup's findings about the public's satisfaction or dissatisfaction with 24 leading issues from a survey taken in January 2008 with another conducted in January 2012. The top three findings are the focus of the article: in January of 2012, 83 percent are dissatisfied with the economy; 69 percent with the size and power of the federal government; and 68 percent with the moral and ethical climate.

These are the findings trumpeted in the headline. But not far down the first page of a two- page report we learn: "Most Americans today are also dissatisfied with the level of immigration into the U.S. and with the nation's efforts to deal with poverty; however, these views haven't changed much in recent years." Thus immigration is once again depreciated as a cause of social disquiet. But the reasoning is extremely curious. Why is it depreciated? Only by a rationale that defies logic: the findings about dissatisfaction with the level of immigration are depreciated because previous studies have shown a high percentage of the public has been dissatisfied with the level of immigration for many years. Thus the very persistence of the problem leads to its being accorded low priority.

The arbitrariness associated with the downgrading of immigration is further evidenced in the section titled "Americans' Satisfaction with the State of the Nation in Specific Areas". Out of 24 areas in national life where public dissatisfaction is measured in January 2012, only five are rated worse than immigration. Of these, one, "affordable healthcare", is just one point higher in terms of dissatisfaction – a statistical wash – and another, "the size and power of the federal government", is also within the five point margin of error. These are statistical differences without distinctions. Thus, only three areas trump immigration as a matter of concern, another reason to believe a political agenda underlies the determination to accord the issue reduced salience.

Of course immigration is an enormously salient issue, and it may prove to be a decisive one in the coming election. Majorities of Americans from every demographic oppose amnesty and any increase in immigration. For the first time in memory the issue has broken through the barriers erected to contain it and has become a national issue in a presidential election. Texas Gov. Rick Perry's paltry showings in the primaries and early departure from the race are directly related to his comment that anyone that opposes in-state tuition discounts for illegal immigrants is heartless. Two of the three surviving candidates – Sen. Rick Santorum and Gov. Mitt Romney – also oppose it and advocate self-deportation.

At the same time, Gingrich panders to Hispanic voters in Florida by mocking self-deportation and denouncing it. He makes two very large mistakes. First, his vision of the Hispanic community lacks any nuance. Viewing it as a monolith and obviously failing to have done the minimum in necessary background research, he assumes immigration is the only issue he needs to address, and by showing greater "compassion" he will win that community. But there is very substantial evidence this approach is fundamentally mistaken.

A poll by the Pew Research Center taken as recently as January 23, "Public Priorities: Deficit Rising, Terrorism Slipping: Tough Stand on Iran Endorsed", offers Hispanic respondents a list of 22 public policy issues to place in priority order. Immigration comes in 16th! Starting with the highest concern, in descending order, the top 10 are the: Economy, Jobs, Terrorism, Budget Deficit, Social Security, Education, Medicare, Tax fairness, Healthcare costs, and Energy. The bottom line would appear to be that Americans who are Hispanic are far more like all other Americans than Speaker Gingrich evidently grasps.

In addition, even if Gingrich were right that the worldview of Americans of Hispanic origin is so narrowly focused and their politics all identity politics, why would he wish to pander to a minority when a huge majority of America opposes any form of amnesty? It would appear the former Speaker, like the pundits, has been very poorly served by the pollsters. He is not only mistaken about Hispanic Americans, he is mistaken about all Americans. There is a particular irony in the fact that the man who goes after the mainstream largely liberal media with a vengeance will now possibly suffer a defeat because he took the media's version of the immigration issue at face value.

Perhaps one facet of American exceptionalism to which insufficient attention has been paid is the great good sense of the American people, whose values and instincts enable it to see through the smokescreen of media deception fueled by pollsters' disinformation.