Confronted by illegal immigrants at a public event in Iowa earlier this week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) put down his lunch and quickly walked away, while Rep. Steve King (R-IA), stood up and had an angry exchange with a young woman who, she said, had been brought to the U.S. illegally when she was a small child.
Both were mocked mercilessly in the media, Paul for running away and King for his combativeness, and for asking rhetorically if the woman was a drug mule. But if a new Reuters/Ipsos poll out today is any guide, the two lawmakers’ reaction to the appearance of illegal immigrants might be a mirror of much of the country.
The poll found that the 70 percent of Americans believe illegal immigrants are a threat to “traditional U.S. beliefs and customs.”
The concern about the impact of immigrants on beliefs and customs was most pronounced among Republicans, with 86 percent expressing concern. Regionally, New Englanders were the most concerned, with 80 percent saying they were worried about cultural shifts.
Additionally, a majority of those polled – 63 percent – said that immigrants were a burden on the U.S. economy. A plurality of 45 percent said they were in favor of reducing even the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country.
To be sure, there is a strong economic case to be made that sound immigration policy would actually help, not hinder, the U.S. economy. Arguments at that level, however, seem not to penetrate public consciousness the way that grim warnings about the dire consequences of illegal immigration do.
Concerns about cultural shifts are, of course nothing new. Over the centuries, immigrants of all stripes, Germans, Irish, European Jews, Chinese and many others have been the cause of much hand-wringing over cultural changes. Ironically, much of it is now being repeated by their descendants.
The poll adds another wrinkle to the political discussion under way this summer. Congress left Washington on its five-week August recess without sending the president legislation to reform the immigration system. The most highly visible problem left unaddressed was the plight of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minor children who crossed the border illegally, and are now waiting – many in detention facilities – for a court hearing.
President Obama has indicated that he will do everything he can within his authority as chief executive to alleviate the strain on enforcement officials at the border. The poll’s finding, though, suggests that any steps the president takes that appear to be a relaxation of the rules against illegal immigration could come at a heavy political price.
The poll surveyed 2,014 Americans online, and was conducted between July 15 and 22.
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