Immigrants, Immigration, and the Reform Moment

Immigration reform has been at an impasse since 2007, when Congress debated but failed to pass legislation. This week, President Obama met with immigration advocates, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and he’s planning a major speech on the issue Thursday. Mounting pressure from a new state law in Arizona, including an anticipated legal challenge from the administration, has moved the issue up on the president’s agenda, despite a lack of support from Republicans and conservative Democrats in a mid-term election year.

Looking at recent polling suggests that the president should have some hope.

According to recent public polling, a majority of Americans support the new Arizona law that makes it a state crime to be in the United States illegally and requires police to ask people during arrests and routine stops to verify their residency. If they are unable to prove their legal right to be in the United States, they will be detained and deported. Support for this law has hovered around 60 percent since it was signed into law in April, depending on the poll and the questions asked.

In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 58 percent support the new law in Arizona, with Republicans backing it at 79 percent, Independents at 61 percent and Democrats at 40 percent. Majorities across all affiliations agreed wholeheartedly that the United States is not doing enough to keep illegal immigrants from coming into the country (Republicans 87 percent, Independents 74 percent, and Democrats 65 percent).

The same poll asked the same people: “Would you support or oppose a program giving ILLEGAL immigrants now living in the United States the right to live here LEGALLY if they pay a fine and meet other requirements?”

A majority, 57 percent, said yes (nearly the same share that supports the Arizona law). Even nearly half (49 percent) of Republicans surveyed support an earned legalization program, while 56 percent of Independents and 66 percent of Democrats back such a program.

What can we make of a public that both supports a law intended to crack down on immigrants and discourage further illegal immigration and a major change in policy to allow those without legal status already in the United States to register and adjust status?

I offer this explanation. Americans make a distinction between “immigration” and “immigrants.” “Immigration” brings to mind policies and government responsibilities like visas and border fortification and national security. And at this particular moment, with a lingering recession, high unemployment, and state and local crackdowns—all accompanied by significant media attention—it brings to mind mostly illegal immigration.

“Immigrants,” it turns out, evokes different images, largely human ones. Americans are willing to accept the fact that people come to this country in search of opportunity, even those who are here without authorization. Most are descendents of immigrants. They understand that if they were in the same position as many of today’s immigrants are, with limited prospects in their home country, they would do the same thing: migrate.

This should be welcome news for the president and proponents of comprehensive immigration reform and should a signal to Congress that the American public may be more prepared to accept a bargain struck between supporters of enforcement-only proposals and supporters of legalization.

When asked whether the states or the federal government should be making and enforcing their own immigrant laws, those polled were tilted slightly toward the feds, with 52 percent saying the feds and 46 percent saying the states (with Democrats more likely to answer the federal government and Independents and Republicans more supportive of state governments).

Is this a green light for the president to press Congress to move on reforming immigration policy? It may be as close as we can get in the current moment as we reconcile politics, economics and a strong desire for change in our current policies.