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Political Splits on Immigration Reflect Voters' Ambivalence

pdf mise en ligne :05 01 2006 ( NEA say… n° 01 )

ASILE > Perspectives financières

Americans Favor Tighter Borders but Divide on Entrants' Fate

By Dan Balz
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

When Congress returns to the unfinished business of immigration early in the new year, lawmakers will be trying to reconcile sometimes conflicting public attitudes on an issue that has become a crusade to some conservative Republicans but has defied effective solutions over the past three decades.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in mid-December found Americans alarmed by the federal government's failure to do more to block the flow of illegal immigration and critical of the impact of illegal immigration on the country but receptive to the aspirations of undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States.
"You wonder why politicians are not always consistent," said Republican pollster Glen Bolger. "It's because public opinion's not always consistent."
Immigration still ranks below the war in Iraq, terrorism, health care and the economy on the public's list of priorities, but in many parts of the country -- not just those areas near the Mexican border -- it has become an issue of pressing significance because of its economic, racial and, more recently, national security implications.
If there is any consensus today, it is on the need for enhanced border security, driven not only by traditional concerns about jobs and the strains illegal immigrants put on state and local resources but also by newer worries that the porous border makes America more vulnerable to terrorists. The public and politicians are far more divided on the difficult question of how to treat the roughly 11 million illegal migrants already in the country.
Conservative anti-immigration advocates controlled the debate last month in the House, which passed stringent legislation calling for the construction of nearly 700 miles of fence along the Mexican border and including strict measures to police employers to prevent them from hiring undocumented workers. Critics call it the harshest immigration bill in memory.
That bill responds directly to public anger over illegal immigration. The Post-ABC News poll found that four in five Americans think the government is not doing enough to prevent illegal immigration, with three in five saying they strongly hold that view.
The same poll found that 56 percent of Americans believe that illegal immigrants have done more to hurt the country than to help it, with 37 percent saying they help the country. About three in five Republicans and a bare majority of Democrats agreed that illegal immigrants are detrimental to the country.
The only groups in the poll who disagreed were people with postgraduate degrees, those with incomes exceeding $100,000 and nonwhite respondents. The Post-ABC poll did not include enough Hispanics to provide an accurate reading of their sentiment, but a Pew Hispanic Center survey last summer found that two in three Latinos said that undocumented migrants help the economy.
Still, many Americans expressed support for trying to help those already here to stay and achieve legal status. The Post-ABC poll asked whether illegal immigrants who are working here should be given the opportunity to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status, or be rounded up and deported to their native countries. Three in five Americans said undocumented workers should be given the opportunity to stay and become citizens.
Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, said Americans are ambivalent on this issue. "There is a clear view that families that are here, that are working, paying taxes and contributing to society, ought to be able to get regularized status," he said. "On the other hand, there is a view about not rewarding illegal behavior."
Public frustration is clear, and politicians have responded. In Arizona, irritation over illegal immigration spawned the controversial Minutemen movement, with citizens organizing to police the borders on their own. Democrats as well as Republicans have felt the heat. Two Democratic governors, Arizona's Janet Napolitano and New Mexico's Bill Richardson, declared emergencies along their borders and shifted state resources to local governments to help pay the costs of dealing with the phenomenon.
In the recent Post-ABC News poll, President Bush got his lowest marks on immigration, with 33 percent saying they approved of how he was handling the issue. That may largely reflect irritation over the government's failure to control the borders.
Border security has become the point of consensus in the debate. A Gallup poll in early December found that 56 percent of Americans said the government's principal focus should be on stopping the flow of illegal immigration, rather than working on a plan that would allow those here to become legal residents.
Bush has proposed a guest-worker program as part of a comprehensive immigration package, but Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), leader of anti-illegal-immigration forces nationally, has denounced the plan as a thinly disguised amnesty for undocumented immigrants. Tancredo's view prevailed in the House, which rebuffed the president by failing to include a guest-worker plan in its legislation.
Bush has tried to satisfy those who want to tighten the borders without alienating Hispanic voters, the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc. But when the White House praised the House for acting on immigration, the Wall Street Journal's conservative editorial page denounced the president. "By voicing no disapproval of these over-the-top provisions, Mr. Bush legitimizes the forces that will make it hard to pass useful reform," the editorial said.
Bush may find more receptivity to his guest-worker plan in the Senate, where Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) have sponsored legislation that calls for creating such a program and the possibility for illegal immigrants eventually to regularize their status in the United States. But finding a Senate majority for any comprehensive proposal will be difficult -- and even if approved there, such a measure would face stiff opposition back in the House.
As they move to the next stage of the legislative process, lawmakers will have to sort through conflicting findings on the question of creating a guest-worker program. Time magazine found strong support for such a program in its poll at the beginning of December, but earlier NBC News-Wall Street Journal and CBS News-New York Times polls found opposition to the idea.
Immigration cuts across party lines and has split both parties' coalitions. That suggests the possibility for a bipartisan solution, but in reality it might make compromise even more remote.
"You've got business groups and unions very often joined together on one side on this and movement conservatives and rank-and-file working class voters on the other side, with all of this playing out against the backdrop of the ongoing political battle for the Hispanic vote between Democrats and Republicans," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin. "The politics and the unusual coalitions make all the political choices much more difficult."

Assistant polling director Claudia Deane contributed to this report.