A tough stance against illegal immigration is a popular stance -- as long as it is tough in the right way. Also, the public absolutely insists that English should be the official language, meaning the only official language, in these United States -- and Latinos in the United States agree with the broader public.
Those are the two key findings from a mid-April survey by respected pollster McLaughlin & Associates, conducted at the behest of the conservative group Citizens United. (And clearly, the sample population in the survey was not tilted rightward: Various cross-tabs in the poll show absolutely no bias in either the liberal or conservative direction.)
Let's zip through some of the poll numbers first, and then discuss what they mean.
By a margin of 63-36, Americans believe that illegal immigration is a major problem (vs. a minor problem or not a problem at all). Latinos also agree, but by a much closer split of 50 to 47.
By a 74-22 margin, Americans agree with the following statement: "We have to stop the flow of illegals before we address what to do about those who already are here." Latinos agree, 63 to 32.
Somewhat surprisingly (to me at least), when given six choices as to what is "the best way to stop illegal immigration" (including getting tougher on employers who hire illegals and increasing federal funding for more border agents and new technology), the choice that finished dead last among the six, with only 7 percent, was "building a wall or fence along the US-Mexican border to prevent all off-road illegal immigration into the US." When asked directly, though, whether they would support a border fence, 50 percent said yes and 41 percent said no. This was one of the only issues on which there was a marked difference between Latinos and the broader public: Latinos dislike the fence idea by a 35-61 margin.
On the other hand, Latinos by a percentage of 56-35 support the hiring of 6,000 new border patrol agents, bringing the total to more than 18,000. The broader public, according to the poll, supports more agents, 70-20.
Now, here is where the poll gets really interesting: 88 percent of all respondents, including 88 percent of Latinos, favor English immersion classes for students from other linguistic backgrounds. This puts the lie to the idea that Latinos would prefer to be taught in those trendy "bilingual" classes that try to ease such students into English by teaching in their original language first. And 80 percent of Americans, including 62 percent of Latinos, favor making English the official language of the United States.
Support is also strong across the board for requiring valid photo identification in order to vote, and for "a tamper-proof identification card system to determine instantly whether a job applicant is entitled to work inside the United States," and also for prohibiting states from issuing drivers' licenses for illegal immigrants.
Finally (for our purposes), 68 percent of all those surveyed, and 56 percent of Latinos, support enactment of a "zero tolerance" policy requiring deportation of illegal immigrants.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS is that, first, the problem of illegal immigration remains of serious importance to the voting public; second, the public wants the borders closed and strongly disapproves of illegals; third, the public thinks immigrants ought to be assimilated into our culture and abide by our laws and customs; fourth, Latinos do not differ very much from the broader public in their views on these subjects; and fifth, that a candidate who learns to talk about these issues in the right way will gain an advantage without risking a backlash among the ever-increasing number of legal Latino voters in this country.
It takes some reading between the lines, though, to figure out what that "right way" is. I think the key distinction is that the public wants firmness but not harshness. The border fence earns support, but not strong support, for instance -- which could indicate that, symbolically, an American people steeped in the ideals of freedom, especially freedom from physical restraint, are less enthusiastic about something that looks physically confining. Forgive the amateur psychologizing here, but the lesser enthusiasm for the fence could signify that one of the very ideals that many opponents of illegal immigration want to hold inviolable is that a free society depends on ordered liberty of the sort in which most citizens voluntarily abide by our laws, rather than have them physically enforced, because obeisance to the duly constituted laws of our land creates a society in which freedom itself can flourish more widely.
Wait: That sentence was rather dense. Try this: We ourselves enforce our laws by obeying them, because doing so serves the greater good from which we, too, benefit.
We want anybody who comes to this country to understand and live by that ideal. That ideal is harder to symbolize with a fence than it is with a border whose strictures are observed without a physical barrier.
Note that a majority still says that if it takes a fence to do the job, then by all means build a fence. But that's the least popular option, the fallback if other options fail.
THERE'S A CRUCIAL COROLLARY to these results that the pro amnesty/easy-guest-worker/lesser-restriction crowd always gets wrong. Again and again, that crowd -- Ted Kennedy, John McCain, President Bush -- acts as if they flat-out don't believe the frequent protestation of the tough-on-illegal coalition that the tough guys really do welcome legal immigrants, just not illegal ones. At the National Review Institute conservative summit earlier this year, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush otherwise wowed the crowd -- but he created an angry buzz that had not even begun to dissipate a full day later when his pro-guest-worker comments almost explicitly criticized the motives of the get-tough folks, as if they (we) are all xenophobes rather than people who sincerely welcome outsiders as long as they, but only if they, are willing to follow our laws.
The subtleties in the McLaughlin poll, showing overwhelming support for strong border enforcement but a carefully calibrated sense of how to go about it, shows that Americans remain a welcoming people but a people who insist that it must actually mean something to be an American. It means that you abide by our laws, including those governing how you come here in the first place. It means that you join our common culture, especially by learning our common language. Yes, your culture can enrich ours, and our culture will value the additions yours makes to our own -- but only if you make the effort to make yours a part of ours, rather than to make ours bend to yours at our own expense.
Our language and our laws are sacrosanct. If you don't like it, stay out -- or else be hunted down, jailed, and deported.
But if you want to actually be an American, and voluntarily respect the social compact, this sacred covenant, that defines our civic life....well, then, by all means, come on in! Good citizens and good visitors are always welcome here in these United States. Just do us the courtesy of honoring our rules.
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