Why Immigration Reform Is So Difficult

By Robert VerBruggen

Today the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution's Governance Studies program are releasing a report that covers a lot of new immigration polling data. The public's attitudes on this issue could affect both the midterm elections and the potential for a new immigration law in the next Congress.

Why has the debate dragged on so long? This chart might seem to suggest that granting legal status to illegal immigrants is a no-brainer for any self-interested politician:

Unfortunately, this broad agreement -- about 80 percent in favor of some kind of legal status -- obscures a whole lot of differences. In fact, the legal-status coalition is so broad that it includes many of the most prominent immigration skeptics. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), for example, once wrote a piece called "Enforcement, Then Amnesty, on Immigration."

The question isn't whether we should grant unauthorized immigrants some kind of legal status; the question is when we should do that and what other policy changes should go along with it. Should we have an amnesty with no strings attached? Or should we also build a fence, get control of the borders, and harshly punish businesses that are caught employing unauthorized workers? Should these measures be in place for a while before legal status is granted? If we do ramp up enforcement, should we increase the flow of legal immigration to offset the reduced flow of illegal immigration? By how much?

And that's where public opinion gets a lot harder to analyze. Take, for example, the economic effects of immigration -- an issue with huge ramifications for all the questions above. In the new data from PRRI and Brookings, 70 percent of respondents said immigrants take jobs Americans don't want, while only 22 percent said they take jobs from American citizens. However, a very similar question that singled out illegal immigrants prompted very different answers: 45 percent say illegal immigrants "help the economy by providing low-cost labor," while 46 percent say they "hurt the economy by driving down wages for many Americans."

More specific questions might shed light on what Americans believe when it really comes down to it -- but the new survey apparently didn't ask much about enforcement measures short of deportation. Strikingly, the words "fence," "border," "E-Verify," and "employer" do not appear anywhere in the report -- which is entitled "What Americans Want From Immigration Reform in 2014" -- and the word "enforcement" appears only once (in a footnote referring to the federal government's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency). However, last year, Rasmussen found 57 percent in favor of continuing construction on the Mexican-border fence. In a poll commissioned by CIS, "72 percent said they support reducing the illegal immigrant population by requiring employers to check workers' legal status, fortifying the border, and getting the cooperation of local police. A total of 54 percent said they strongly support this approach."

So, the divide here is not over deportation or legal status. Few among the public (to say nothing of policymakers) support rounding up illegal immigrants and sending them back on a mass scale, and it's not clear what advantage there could be in maintaining a large illegal population rather than coming to grips with the situation and granting some kind of amnesty. Instead, the divide is over what form the rest of our immigration policy should take when (or before) legalization goes into effect. On that, the public is not monolithic.

But attitudes are evolving in important ways. On several questions in the PRRI/Brookings survey, respondents have shifted significantly to the left in recent years. Relative to 2010, Americans are now 14 points more likely to say immigration strengthens society (as opposed to threatening American traditions) and 9 points more likely to say that Democrats are the most trustworthy party on the issue (they now beat Republicans 46-33). And while evenly divided on the question today, Americans have grown 9 points more likely to say illegal immigrants help the economy in the last year alone.

How all that will add up in terms of politics and policy is anyone's guess.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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