Americans Don't Know What They Think

Americans Don't Know What They Think

At a Heritage Foundation event today, Kellyanne Conway of the Polling Company, Inc./WomenTrends (TPC/WT) outlined the new immigration polling data her organization has published. The results lean toward the populist/immigration-skeptic point of view, so it's informative to compare the questions with those of two polls I wrote about in June, whose results were friendlier to high levels of immigration.

The simple reality, it seems, is that most Americans don't have fully fleshed out immigration-reform plans floating around in their heads. (Shocking, I know.) As a result, depending on how you ask the question, you can get them to support or oppose pretty much any proposal.

Even on the most basic issues the differences are stark. For example, in June a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution's Governance Studies program asked people to choose between citizenship, legal residence, and deportation for illegal immigrants; 62 percent were in favor of citizenship, and another 17 percent supported a different kind of legal status. A similar question in the other June survey, by, had a different blend of responses but also found a strong majority in favor of citizenship or legal status. And even when PRRI/Brookings polled another option in a different survey -- so-called "self-deportation," defined as "making conditions so difficult for illegal immigrants that they voluntarily return to their home countries" -- they found only 34 percent support.

The new survey, by contrast, asked respondents whether illegal immigrants should be given legal status or "encouraged" to go home. 70 percent picked the latter. So, a strong majority of Americans support legal status if the alternative is deportation, only a minority support making life "difficult" for illegal immigrants ... and yet a strong majority support "encourag[ing]" illegal immigrants to leave instead of granting them any kind of legal status.

What about the economic effects of immigration? As I noted in June, even the PRRI/Brookings data by themselves show how hard it is to poll the question:

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."

Once again, the TPC/WT data show a much more populist side to Americans' views. One question offered two ways of dealing with a lack of workers -- businesses could pay more, or the government could let in more immigrants -- and three-quarters of respondents said businesses should pay more. Three quarters also agreed that the government has a responsibility to use immigration law to protect low-income natives "from competition with illegal immigrants for jobs." Four-fifths of respondents agreed that "Americans who need work ought to have an opportunity to do the jobs that are currently done by illegal immigrants."

So, in the view of the American public, immigrants take jobs Americans don't even want ... but Americans need protection from illegal-immigrant competition, and businesses should raise wages instead of relying on immigrants if they can't find enough workers.

At the Heritage event, Conway suggested that immigration isn't an issue that should be decided on the basis of polling and political expediency. Instead, lawmakers should just do what's right. I'm actually optimistic on this -- not because any politician would make that choice voluntarily, but because it might be the only option. Given the state of the polling data, it's far from clear which a side self-interested legislator should pander to.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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