Republican Primary Messages Contradict Public Support for a Path to Citizenship

The first half of 2015 is nearly over. So far this year, the immigration debate has been dominated by President Obama’s executive action on immigration and Republican efforts to stop it. Republican state leaders have been successful in using the courts to temporarily halt the president’s action. Congress has drafted legislation to overturn the President’s actions. Presidential races are underway, and many candidates for the Republican nomination have vowed to end the President’s order.

Between last year and this, the focus of the immigration debate has changed. Last year, it was legislation moving through Congress that would have offered long-resident undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, provided they could meet certain conditions. Conservative Republicans were successful at killing reform.

This year, with Congress seeming incapable of reforming the immigration laws, the President has acted to protect, at least temporarily, some of the same long-resident undocumented immigrants who would have benefited from the legislation. Again, conservative Republicans are trying to stop relief for these aspiring Americans.

It’s time to take another look at how the public feels about all this. By looking at several public opinion polls since the beginning of the year, it is clear that the public’s attitude has changed very little from last year to this. There is majority support for allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally.

Jan2014-June2015

Consistent Support

Since the beginning of the year, several public opinion surveys—most by mainstream news organizations, but some by other firms—have tried to gauge public support for providing legal status for undocumented immigrants. All of these surveys show majority support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Furthermore, when survey questions describe conditions that undocumented immigrants would have to meet to gain citizenship, public support goes up. That is, when the questions mirror conditions that have been placed in actual legislation—learning English, a criminal background check, etc.—the public is more supportive than if they were just asked if they support a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.

Some of these polls also ask the about President Obama’s executive action on immigration. In general, public opinion surveys show support for the policy (allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally), but there is less support for the president’s method (acting without congressional approval).

 Citizenship vs. Legal Status vs. Deportation

Several polls have asked people to choose between allowing undocumented immigrants to stay and eventually apply for citizenship, allowing them to stay and gain legal status but not citizenship, or requiring them to leave the country. In January, CBS News asked this question, and found that 54 percent favored allowing undocumented immigrants to eventually apply for citizenship. An additional 15 percent favored allowing them to stay, but not gain citizenship. In total, 69 percent favored allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. Only 27 percent said they should be required to leave.

Compared to last year, there appears to be more polarization between Republicans on one side, and Democrats and Independents on the other. Citizenship was favored by 68 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of Independents. For Republicans, deportation was the first choice, at 43 percent.

Another CBS survey, conducted with the New York Times in late April/early May, found that 57 percent of the overall public favored citizenship, with an additional 11 percent favoring legal status but not citizenship. 29 percent favored deportation. Again, there was a split between Republicans and everyone else. Democrats and Independents favored citizenship (71 and 55 percent, respectively) while 46 percent of Republicans favored deportation.

Majority Support for a Path to Citizenship in Every State

The Public Religion Research Institute in February similarly tested attitudes about a path to citizenship vs. legal status vs. deportation. They found that 78 percent of the public supports either a path to citizenship (59 percent) or legal status (19 percent). Only 18 percent support deportation.

The Public Religion Research Institute has asked a lot of people how they feel about immigration reform with a path to citizenship. It now has data for every state on the question of support for allowing immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally to become citizens provided they meet certain conditions. There is majority support in every state, ranging from a low of 52% in Wyoming to a high of 66% in Delaware. There is additional support in every state for allowing these immigrants to gain legal residency, but not citizenship.

Support Among Evangelical Christians

Back in February, Lifeway Research conducted a survey of Evangelical Christians. In this community, too, there is majority support for the idea that “immigration reform legislation should establish a path to citizenship…” 61 percent support that idea.

This survey provided a good example of a phenomenon seen in other polls: the more the path to citizenship concept is detailed and put in context, the higher the support. This survey asked respondents if they would

“support changes to U.S. immigration laws that would both increase border security measures and establish a process so that those immigrants in the U.S. unlawfully could earn permanent legal status and eventually apply for citizenship if they pay a fine, pass a criminal background check, and complete other requirements during a probationary period.”

Support for reform put in these terms was 68 percent.

Candidate Position on Executive Action a Deal Breaker for Latinos

Among other things, an AP-GfK poll conducted in April asked whether respondents would be more or less likely to support a presidential candidate who pledged to keep the president’s executive action on immigration in place, or one who pledged to overturn it. While the public was nearly evenly divided (49 percent keep; 47 percent overturn), in general the issue was not a deal breaker. For example, while three quarters of Republicans said they would prefer to vote for a candidate who would undo the president’s executive order, 55% said they would either support a candidate who would keep the order in place, or they could imagine voting for such a candidate. For Latinos, however, the issue is a deal-breaker: 53 percent said they definitely could not support a candidate who wants to undo the president’s order.

Here is a paper written for the National Immigration with a summary of many other public opinion surveys concerning immigration reform. I will update this post after a forthcoming update to the paper is posted.