At first blush, that question seems ridiculous. Each of us, it seems, knows exactly how we feel about immigration, legal and illegal. What is more, each of us seems very sure that we hold a majority view. And each of us -- from immigration doves like the editorial page writers for the Wall Street Journal to immigration hawks like Tom Tancredo -- tends to hold his view with some vehemence.
Dozens, if not hundreds, of polls have been taken on the subject. Polls, of course, often produce tendentious results -- it depends on how you ask questions. And there are now polls of polls and roundups of polls galore on the subject. I started searching polls after reading a column by Jeff Jacoby in which he said, basing his conclusion on a Gallup poll, that 59 percent of Americans favor some sort of path to legality for existing illegal immigrants.
That poll most certainly exists. I have placed a link to it, and to Jeff Jacoby's original two columns on immigration, at the end of this column. I have similarly placed links to other polls I cite at the end of the column, rather than break up the presentation in text.
THE GALLUP RESULTS ARE ECHOED in many other polls. Fox News' Opinion Dynamics polls, from April of 2006, found that 69 percent of respondents favored allowing illegal immigrants currently in the country to stay under a grant of legal guest worker status.
Time magazine, in a poll summarized by Immigration Forum, and taken in March of 2006, finds that 79 percent of responders favor a "guest worker" program. Some 80 percent favor letting illegal immigrants stay if they have a job, learn English, and pay taxes.
But Gallup's result on the deportation question differs sharply from other polls, likely because of methodology. Gallup gave respondents a one-in-three choice: deport, temporary guest-worker, or path to citizenship. Under that stringent choice, only 24 percent supported deportation.
Fox, which asked a great many questions, but without insisting on exclusive answers, found that 57 percent of people favored deporting illegal aliens.
A POLITICIAN SEEKING AN IMMIGRATION-BASED platform might find it hard to figure out what it is that Americans do think. The Center for Immigration studies commissioned a Zogby poll to determine what likely voters thought of the contrasting House and Senate immigration bills. By more than two to one, respondents preferred the restrictionist, enforcement-first provisions of the House bill.
That would seem to support findings in the Fox/Opinion Dynamics poll, which says that 90 percent of respondents think immigration is a "very serious" (60 percent) or "somewhat serious" (30 percent) problem. Want confusion? The lead to the story about the same poll says, "Seven in 10 people say they favor allowing illegals that have jobs to apply for temporary-worker status, but eight in 10 think it is unfair to grant rights to illegal immigrants while so many others wait to come to the United States legally."
IT IS NO WONDER POLICY-MAKERS don't do anything about immigration. Legislators and executives mostly have to make either-or choices. Everyday Americans, when forced to choose between enforcement and legality, largely favor some legal path. But, when not forced to make a decision, Americans' views are all over the map. We are a caring people, but we are also pissed off. That's a tough horse for any politician to ride.
Jeff Jacoby: Illegal Immigrants Are Here to Stay
Jeff Jacoby: What If We Deport Them All?
Immigration Forum: Polling Summary: Public Support for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.
Center for Immigration Studies: Americans Prefer House Approach on Immigration
Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.
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