As Congress grapples with a push for the first major immigration reform in more than a quarter century, attention has understandably focused on what Americans think about this important issue.
Too often, however, surveys that take the public’s pulse present a simple take-it-or-leave-it option: Do you support a path to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the United States without permission? In reality, opinion is more nuanced.
To gauge attitudes in California — home to more immigrants, both legal and illegal, than any other state — UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) surveyed more than 3,100 registered voters in an Internet poll conducted in early May. Our sample is broadly representative of California’s registered voters, who are more likely to be white and native born, older and more educated than the state’s overall population.
We asked Californians not merely about a pathway to citizenship for all illegal immigrants, but about a variety of alternatives, such as citizenship programs only for some illegal immigrants, residency programs that don’t lead to citizenship, a policy of returning illegal immigrants to their country of origin, or the status quo. We also asked people what should happen to illegal immigrants who don’t meet the criteria for staying here legally.
When presented with just two options — the status quo or a pathway to citizenship for all of the 11 million illegal immigrants who can pass a background check — legalization and a path to citizenship won the support of 58 percent of respondents, while 42 percent preferred the status quo.
When the question included other options, such as a program that would offer legal residency without citizenship, majority support for a pathway to citizenship generally held firm. Furthermore, less than 20 percent of respondents supported “making every effort to return all illegal immigrants to their home countries.”
Data recently released by the federal government indicate that in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, an estimated 455,000 people were deported, a majority of whom had been convicted of a criminal offense and presumably would not have passed the background check required for legalization.
When the Dream Act was included as an option, the percentage of respondents favoring the status quo was sliced in half, and support for a path to citizenship for all illegal immigrants dropped from 58 to 39 percent, with an additional 39 percent favoring the reform for just the Dreamers.
Even Republicans, who were generally more skeptical than Democrats about a path to citizenship, were often drawn to a program limited to Dreamers. Of GOP respondents, 45 percent backed that idea, with an additional 18 percent favoring a path to citizenship for anyone who can pass a background check.
So Californians are generally supportive of a pathway to citizenship — and overwhelmingly so for those who were brought into the country as children and might be covered under the Dream Act.
But substantial majorities in both parties also said it was “extremely important” that illegal immigrants offered a pathway to citizenship be able to pass an English test and demonstrate a history of steady work. Californians prefer to include in the country those who contribute to the economy and who “fit in.” Furthermore, while only a small minority favored an effort to deport all illegal immigrants, there was a bipartisan majority saying it was important that illegal immigrants who do not meet the criteria for the path to citizenship be returned to their home countries.
A final point: We solicited voters’ expectations about the consequences of immigration reform. If millions of people here now are offered a path to citizenship, will illegal immigration increase or decrease? Will the economy expand or shrink? Will our sense of a common American identity flourish or wither?
On balance, Californians expect an increase in illegal immigration and crime, but on the other hand they expect the economy to be strengthened and, interestingly, they expect the country’s sense of a common identity to increase as illegal immigrants become more openly integrated into American society.
Those views do not appear to be set in stone, however. Critics of reform often note that the last major immigration reform, in 1986, failed to stem the influx of illegal immigrants, and we wanted to measure how effective that argument against reform might be. So, for about half the respondents, we prefaced this final set of questions by noting that since the last major reform, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has increased from 3 million to 11 million.
What was the result of telling respondents about the historical experience? Both Democrats and Republicans across the board grew more pessimistic about the likely outcome of the reform push.
California’s enormous size — 1 out of every 8 Americans lives here and its congressional delegation contains an extraordinary 55 members — means that the state’s collective view almost always has relevance for the nation’s politics. In the case of immigration reform, California already has made a difference in shaping the legislation now before Congress: Two interest groups with a distinctively California flavor — high-tech and agriculture — successfully pushed for provisions in the bill that would make it easier to obtain visas to bring in and keep foreign workers.
But there are two subtler ways in which the opinions reflected in this poll could make a difference nationally. First, advocates of a path to legalization of illegal immigrants should take heart that a steady majority supports that idea, even when weaker alternatives are proposed, and that among Republicans, a plurality backs the notion that Dreamers deserve a shot at becoming citizens.
On the other hand, reformers should take heed that even in strongly Democratic California, a large majority supports border security, electronic verification, and the deportation of illegal immigrants who fail to meet the conditions for a pathway program. Such reservations in a pro-immigration state probably will be echoed elsewhere in the nation.
The usual impact of public opinion on policy is to constrain rather than direct. Still, as Washington tries to bargain toward reform, the views of Californians, a mixture of firmness and nuance, may be pointing the way.
This post was co-authored with doctoral student Morris Levy. This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, and is re-posted with permission. To see the full results of the survey, go to the Institute of Governmental Studies website.