Almost half of Americans say a revision of immigration law would be “mostly good” for the economy, yet, with Senate debate set to begin next week, the public is split on whether Congress should pass a bill.
The divide reflected in the latest Bloomberg National Poll is rooted in partisan rifts and ambivalence among Americans about how U.S. law should treat the estimated 11 million immigrants residing in the country without authorization.
About three-quarters say they favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants with no criminal records who pay back taxes and fines and wait more than a decade, the centerpiece of the pending bill. Almost two-thirds also said they back deporting those already here illegally, and sealing the border so no others come in violation of U.S. laws.
“I’m in-between on my feelings about it,” said poll respondent Bryan James, 24, an independent in Ypsilanti, Michigan, who said he supports the immigration legislation. “We all want the law to be enforced and I think that’s important, but I believe they should have a chance for citizenship if they’re going to contribute.”
Still, James said he would favor deporting illegal immigrants as part of the bill. “Sneaking across the border -- it’s kind of hard to say that’s acceptable. It doesn’t make sense to let people come here and live off the government with no consequences. We have enough people doing that here already,” he said in a follow-up interview.
Public sentiment on the proposed legislation backed by President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of lawmakers is even more deeply split. Forty-six percent of respondents say they support changing the law and providing a path to citizenship for immigrants who lack legal status, while 45 percent say they oppose that, in the survey conducted May 31 to June 3. That’s a statistically insignificant difference in the telephone survey of 1,002 adults, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
The divide falls largely along partisan lines, with Republicans rejecting the initiative, Democrats favoring it, and independents split, underlining the political stakes for the parties as both sides try to push public opinion their way.
“Republicans in Congress have to get the final agreement pitch perfect to avoid potential primary challenges,” said J. Ann Selzer, owner of Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Company, which conducted the poll.
Republican respondents say they oppose the legislation 65 percent to 26 percent, while Democrats embrace it 63 percent to 30 percent. Independents are evenly divided, with 47 percent in favor and 45 percent opposed.
The finding is striking given that many top Republican officials, stung by their party’s 2012 electoral losses and weak showing among Hispanic voters, now consider supporting a broad immigration revision a political imperative.
Seventy-one percent of Hispanics, a fast-growing U.S. voting bloc, backed Obama in 2012 over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who was supported by 27 percent. In the poll, Hispanics by an almost 2-to-1 margin say they back an immigration revision.
The risk for Republican lawmakers is that the party hierarchy’s views haven’t been embraced by the rank-and-file.
“I guess I am disappointed in my party and surprised that they are just grasping at this whole bill without looking at what it actually does,” said poll respondent Sharon MacArthur, a 62-year-old Republican in Venice, Florida. “I know what we have now isn’t good, but I don’t think just allowing everybody to stay and bleed our system without consequences is the right thing to do.”
Among the most popular elements of bill are those strengthening border security and cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers, both of which draw support from 85 percent of respondents and opposition from little more than one tenth of those polled.
“We need to seal off the borders. If they want to come in, fine, but they need to do it the right way, legally,” said John Maxwell, 43, an independent from Fort Collins Colorado, in a follow-up interview.
A plurality says passage of the immigration legislation would be mostly good for the U.S. economy, with 47 percent saying it would be positive and 36 percent saying it would be mostly bad.
Still, among the public, particularly those with lower incomes and levels of educational attainment, anxiety exists about how the measure could impact U.S. workers at a time of high unemployment. Forty-eight percent of those earning less than $50,000 annually say they oppose the bill, compared to 41 percent who support it, and majorities of those without high school or college degrees are against it.
Those concerns aren’t limited to the measure’s opponents. Joyce Ann Cagle of Channel View, Texas, a 61-year-old retired nurse who said she backs the immigration revision, nonetheless predicted it would be “mostly bad” for the U.S. economy.
“It’s going to take jobs away from a lot of American citizens that do want to work, and could work, but they won’t give them the jobs because they’d rather pay a Hispanic person less and treat them worse,” said Cagle, an independent.
Concerns about the labor market are more acute when it comes to allowing a higher number of high-tech workers to immigrate legally for jobs.
Half of respondents said such a program, included in the Senate bill, would ultimately mean American citizens would be “shut out” of well-paying jobs, while 40 percent said it would help economic growth by furnishing more qualified workers.
The results reverse when Americans were asked about new provisions, also included in the Senate measure, to allow foreign agricultural and other lower-skilled workers to immigrate for employment.
Half said that proposal would help economic growth since there are not enough Americans willing or able to do such jobs, while 39 percent said it would create additional competition for U.S. workers already struggling to find employment.
The survey also suggests the efforts of evangelical leaders and pastors to make a Bible-based argument for revising immigration policy with a pathway to citizenship may not be resonating with church-goers.
Those who described themselves to pollsters as “born again” are overwhelmingly opposed to the measure, with 58 percent against and 33 percent in favor. They are also less likely than respondents overall to back citizenship for undocumented immigrants and more likely to support deportation.
“From a Christian point of view, I mean yes, you’re supposed to love your neighbor and help them if you can, but at the same time does that mean breaking the law or ignoring the law?,” said Maxwell of Fort Collins, a Mormon. “One of our tenets of the church is that we believe in upholding the law, and you can have all the compassion in the world but you can’t just condone wrongdoing when you see it.”