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Why resist a legal path to citizenship if voters support it?

It’s difficult to think of another issue on which so many political leaders are so flatly, reflexively dismissive of a consistent finding in public opinion polling.
Samuel Aldaraca holds a U.S. flag and a sign outside the Arizona's State Capital after U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton blocked the most controversial sections of Arizona's new Senate Bill 1070 immigration law in Phoenix
Samuel Aldaraca holds a U.S. flag and a sign outside the Arizona's State Capital in Phoenix on July 28, 2010. Joshua Lott / REUTERS
/ Source: National Journal

Call it the immigration paradox.

For years, in good economic times and bad, polls have consistently found that most Americans believe immigrants who are in the United States illegally should be provided a pathway to legal status if they take steps such as paying a fine or learning English. And yet, no matter how many times pollsters return that verdict, most Republican and Democratic elected officials alike remain convinced that providing illegal immigrants any route to legal status is a losing cause politically.

It’s difficult to think of another issue on which so many political leaders are so flatly, reflexively dismissive of a consistent finding in public opinion polling. “I have given briefings to Republican congressmen at retreats on Capitol Hill [about those numbers] and they just look at me and say flatly, ‘that’s not what people in my district think,' " says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. Democratic pollster Guy Molyneux agrees: “A lot of politicians are dubious.”

Obama tries to rebuild Bush coalition
President Obama on Tuesday rang the bell for another round of national debate over immigration reform with a forceful speech in El Paso, Texas. In his remarks, he argued for a comprehensive approach to immigration that would blend tougher enforcement with a guest-worker program and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants—the same tripartite formula that passed the Senate with bipartisan support in 2006.

Even immigration reform advocates say it is unlikely the Senate will seriously consider such a proposal before 2013, and any such plan is a non-starter in the Republican-controlled House. It’s more likely, allies say, that Obama intends to revive a public dialogue over the issue that has been largely dormant since bipartisan reform efforts collapsed in the Senate in 2007.

In the near-term, that could somewhat help Obama restore his frayed relations with Hispanic leaders, who believe he has shortchanged their concerns; in the long-term, the goal is to reconstruct the broad business-labor-minority group coalition that helped advocates build bipartisan Senate support for reform under President George W. Bush. The White House “says it is still hoping for a breakthrough on legislation [before 2012],” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group. “But they are really teeing this up for a second term. I think this is more a marathon than a sprint.”

Public attitudes toward immigration, as on many issues, can vary depending on the wording of poll questions. Depending on how the options are phrased, some surveys (such as a USA Today/Gallup Poll in January) find the country very closely divided, or even slightly opposed to creating a means for illegal immigrants to obtain legal status and ultimately citizenship.

But in most surveys, a solid majority of Americans routinely supports establishing such a pathway to citizenship. What’s more, the results have been remarkably stable over the years.

In March, for instance, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 72 percent of Americans said they would support “providing a way for illegal immigrants currently in the country to gain legal citizenship if they pass background checks, pay fines, and have jobs.” On the four other occasions Pew has asked that question, dating back to 2007, at least 58 percent of Americans have echoed that sentiment.

Likewise, in CBS/New York Times polls dating back to 2006, consistently only about one-third of Americans have said that illegal immigrants should be deported, while about three-fifths or more have said they should be allowed to obtain legal status and remain in the country if they meet certain conditions. Surveys by the Los Angeles Times and the ABC/Washington Post dating back to the 2006 immigration debate have usually produced similar results as well.

In the latest Pew survey, nearly four-fifths of Democrats and almost three-fourths of independents supported a pathway to legalization—as did more than three-fifths of both Republicans and self-indentified conservatives.

Given the breadth—and persistence—of those findings, why do many politicians consider legalization a political third rail?

Intensity trumps the majority?
Ayres says “the answer is intensity. The people who are opposed to some of these initiatives are loud and vigorous and intense, and not shy about sharing their feelings. The people who in favor of some sort of path to earned citizenship are passive, almost in a shoulder-shrug category. The only people legislators hear from are those that are intensely opposed.” That dynamic, Ayres notes, makes it especially difficult for Republican officeholders to defend legalization in a GOP primary.

Democratic pollster Molyneux agrees that among whites, opponents of legalization are much more focused on the issue than supporters. That’s less true now among the population overall, he says, because the issue has increased in salience for the rapidly growing Hispanic population. But the intensity gap among whites, he agrees, discourages support for legalization not only among Republicans but also among Democratic Senate and House members representing constituencies with few Hispanics.

The larger problem, Molyneux believes, is that the support in surveys for legalization masks a deeper ambivalence among most Americans. “People are genuinely conflicted,” he says. “They think people who came here illegally did something wrong and they don’t want to reward that behavior. Then the pragmatic part of their brain says we are not going to, and probably should not deport [all] illegal immigrants.”

Those attitudes create an environment, he says, in which politicians who support legalization worry that counter-arguments, such as the claim that it amounts to amnesty for law-breakers, will undermine the initial public support.

Obama’s speech Tuesday was mostly aimed at reconfiguring the debate from a different direction. As Ayres notes, even many Americans sympathetic to legalization are reluctant to consider it so long as they believe illegal immigrants can still easily cross the Mexican border. Obama began an effort Tuesday to ease those concerns by insisting, “we have strengthened border security beyond what many believed possible.”

“The argument the president is making is important,” Ayres says. “He’s got to persuade at least half the people that we have control of our borders or else nothing is going to happen on any of these other fronts.”

The article, "The Immigration Paradox," first appeared in the National Journal.