On immigration, most Americans favor the velvet glove—and the iron fist.
The latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll found that a solid, if slightly diminishing, majority of Americans support key elements of Arizona’s anti-illegal-immigration law that the White House is seeking to overturn.
But the survey also found that a preponderant majority of Americans reject the option of deporting all of the estimated 11 million immigrants here illegally, and an even larger percentage believe that young people brought to the U.S. illegally should be allowed to remain if they attend college or join the military. Presented with a Democratic proposal that would guarantee those young people a pathway to citizenship, and an emerging alternative from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that would not, a plurality said they prefer the Democratic version of the so-called Dream Act.
These contrasting impulses reaffirm a balance long evident in public attitudes. Most Americans consistently have displayed a strong commitment to enforcing existing law and border security, tempered by a pragmatic and humane streak that questions the plausibility of uprooting millions already settled here. Race, age, and party loyalty all influence how Americans tilt between those poles.
The Congressional Connection Poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 999 adults on May 3-6; it has a margin of error of +/- 3.6 percent.
The instinct to control the border is apparent in support for some of the controversial elements of the Arizona statute, over which the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in April. Some 57 percent in the poll said they supported the provision allowing “police to question anyone who they think may be in the country illegally.” Likewise, 68 percent said that they support the provision requiring “people to produce documents verifying their legal status if police ask for them.” Both of these provisions drew majority support not only from whites, but also from African-Americans (though support among the latter lagged slightly). Strong majorities of Republicans and independents backed both ideas as well, and nearly three-fifths of Democrats supported allowing police to ask for papers (though a slight majority of Democrats opposed police stops of suspected illegal immigrants). Both younger and older whites liked the two provisions. Only Hispanics broke against both ideas (the survey included too few Hispanics to report their responses in granular detail).
Two other components of the Arizona law drew less backing. A narrow 53 percent majority said that police should be allowed “to detain anyone who cannot verify their legal status,” a significant drop from the 67 percent who supported that idea in 2010. Most whites and African-Americans backed allowing such detention, but it faced greater resistance from Democrats, independents, young whites, and above all, Hispanics. Those polled split evenly, 47 to 47 percent, on the law’s provision making it a crime “for anyone in the country illegally” to seek or accept work.
The survey also tested attitudes toward dealing with young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. Asked what should be done with young people brought here illegally who are attending college or have enlisted in the military, a 49 percent plurality agreed that Congress should allow them to remain in the country “and guarantee them that they can become American citizens if they complete their studies or military service.” Another 35 percent said that Washington should instead allow them to remain here and “apply for citizenship ... but not guarantee them that they can become American citizens.”
The question did not identify the partisan sponsors, but the first option summarizes the Democrats’ existing Dream Act, and the second, the alternative that Republican star Rubio is drafting. Democrats strongly preferred the first option, while independents did so narrowly, and Republicans split almost evenly between the two. Hispanics heavily preferred the Democratic option, which also drew support from a slight majority of African-Americans and a narrow plurality of whites. Only one-in-10 of those polled (and even just one-in-seven Republicans) said that those young people should not be allowed to remain here. Similarly, just 17 percent said that the government should deport all of the illegal immigrants here “no matter how long” they have lived in the country; that’s down from 25 percent last December.
Another 33 percent said that all illegal immigrants should be allowed to remain “provided they have broken no other laws and commit to learning English and U.S. history.” Forty-four percent agreed that the government should “deport some, but allow those who have been here for many years and have broken no other laws to stay here legally.”
Even among the most socially conservative components of the white electorate—including noncollege whites, white seniors, and white Republicans—only about one-in-five supported mass deportation.
This article appears in the May 9, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.