Voters Know What We Should Do on Immigration

Unlike lawmakers in Congress, Americans have very clear ideas about how to solve some of the thorniest immigration issues, say recent polls. 

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The Fiscal Times
August 19, 2014

Just before Congress departed for a five-week summer recess, House Republicans passed some tough measures to address the humanitarian crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border and to make it easier to deport children back to Central America.  

President Obama says the GOP approach is a political non-starter and has vowed to act on his own, by summer’s end if necessary, to deal with the thousands of children who illegally crossed into this country in the past year. He may also expand his 2012 executive action to defer the deportation of young illegal immigrants to include as many as five million more people who have lived illegally in this country – what Republicans call “amnesty on steroids.”

Related: Do-Nothing Congress Gets Ready for An Unearned 5-Week Vacation   

“The American people don’t want me just standing around twiddling my thumbs and waiting for Congress to get something done,” Obama said at a press conference earlier this month. For their part, Republicans are opposed to doing anything more ambitious on immigration reform until after the November election.

In short, GOP lawmakers and the president couldn’t be farther apart on what needs to be done and when it should be done – but not so the public. Americans seem to have a pretty clear picture of the issues, according to a review of recent polls by the Washington Post-ABC News, CBS News, the Pew Research Center, CNN and other news organizations. 

The vast majority of Americans think it’s important Congress address the immigration problems with legislation by year’s end. More than half think the legislation should contain some “amnesty” provision that would allow illegal immigrants to stay or be given a path to citizenship.

Roughly more than half believe the scores of unaccompanied children who came here from Central America should be returned home. And by a slender margin, people think the main focus of legislation should be to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. while only secondarily dealing with residency.  

“That happens often on immigration issues when Congress is split and can’t come to agreement,” said Jens Manuel-Krogstad, a writer and editor for the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project. “The U.S. population has a clear opinion on this.”

Here are six key findings of recent polls on the immigration crisis:

Take action Americans are fed up with congressional bickering and inaction and want to see results. Eighty-four percent of voters surveyed by CBS News last month said it was either “very important” or “somewhat important” that Congress pass legislation this year. 

Button up the borders – Republican lawmakers argue that more needs to be done to secure the borders against the next wave of illegal immigrants before addressing the residency status of illegal immigrants, and Americans generally agree. In a July CNN/ORC International survey, 51 percent said the first order of business should be stopping the flow of illegal immigrations, compared to only 45 percent who think the residency status of undocumented immigrants should be taken up first. 

Related: If Obama Offers Amnesty to Millions of Illegals, Impeachment May Follow   

Deal with the “amnesty” issue – Once the question turns to what to do about the estimated 11 million people living illegally in the shadows of this country, a substantial number of people are sympathetic to the idea embodied in the Senate-passed bipartisan plan – but anathema to House Republicans – to provide a pathway to a legal status or even citizenship. 

When people were asked in the CBS News poll which approach comes closest to their views, 54 percent said they thought illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship, 11 percent said they should be allowed to stay but not apply for citizenship, and 30 percent said they should be required to leave. Polling by the Pew Research Center in February found that 73 percent of U.S. adults favored allowing immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally if they met certain requirements, but only 46 percent said they should have a path to citizenship.

Make a plan for processing the children – The biggest immediate crisis is figuring out how to handle the record numbers of unaccompanied children detained along the Southwest border within the past year. More than 57,525 of those children under age 19 and traveling without a parent or guardian were taken into custody, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

On this question, the public’s view is fairly clear-cut: By a margin of 53 percent to 39 percent, U.S. adults favor a faster way to process and send these children back to their countries, according to a Pew Research survey conducted in July. Under the current law, it can take months or years before children are processed and either granted asylum or sent home. On this question, Hispanics were far more divided, with 49 percent saying the process should be faster and 47 percent saying it should be kept as it is.

Related: Jeb Bush Warns GOP on Immigration Reform

Respect the “gut” check – Much of what Americans think about the crisis springs from personal bedrock beliefs about the value of immigration and the impact it has on the economy and job prospects for average American citizens. The Public Religion Research Institute asked adults in a July 23-27 survey whether they think immigrants today “strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents” or are a “burden” on our country “because they take our jobs, housing and health care.”

The finding: 49 percent said immigrants strengthen the country, while 42 percent said they were a burden. The rest said “neither” or they weren’t sure.

Weigh in on the politicians – Americans are pretty disgusted with the performance of both the White House and House Republicans – but a lot more are turned off by the GOP. A Washington Post-ABC News poll done from July 9-July 13 found that 58 percent of American adults disapprove of the way Obama is handling the issue of undocumented immigrants and just 33 percent approve. But 66 percent of adults disapprove of the way congressional Republicans are handling the issue, while only 23 percent approve.

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.