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.”
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