One way to look at the struggle for immigration reform, including the growing fight over the new Senate proposed reform, is as part of the culture wars. Looked at in this way, the striking thing in recent years is how poorly it’s worked for conservatives as a culture wars issue. It failed for conservatives in 2006, where candidates with hard-line enforcement only immigration stances lost almost all competitive races where immigration was a high profile issue. It failed for them in 2007, when Virginia conservatives played the immigration card in campaigns for the state House and Senate only to lose ground in both. And it failed in 2008, where conservatives lost 20 of 22 battleground races where they attempted to use immigration as a wedge issue against progressive candidates. And it failed for them again in 2012 when Mitt Romney’s anti-immigrant stance helped torpedo his bid for the Presidency.
The reason for the failure of a hard-line anti-immigration stance is simple: it’s not popular among the general public, being viewed as punitive and impractical, and is less popular still among rising demographic groups in the country, who are particularly sympathetic to immigrants and immigration reform. For quite a few years, polls have been showing public support for immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship and a relative lack of enthusiasm for an enforcement-only approach.
For example, a May, 2006 Gallup poll asked: “Which comes closest to your view about what government policy should be toward illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States? Should the government deport all illegal immigrants back to their home country, allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States in order to work but only for a limited amount of time, or allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States and become U.S. citizens but only if they meet certain requirements over a period of time?” Sixty-one percent of the public selected the option of allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the US and possibly become citizens if they meet “certain requirements”, compared to 15 percent who favored the limited time option and 21 percent who wanted to deport all illegal immigrants.
Similarly, a March, 2006 Time magazine poll, the public endorsed “allowing illegal immigrants now in this country to earn U.S. citizenship if they learn to speak English, have a job and pay taxes” by a 78-21 margin. Another question, also from that Time poll, gave respondents this choice: “(1) Make illegal immigration a crime and not allow anyone who entered the country illegally to work or stay in the United States under any circumstances. OR, (2) Allow illegal immigrants to get temporary work visas so the government can track them and allow them to earn permanent residence after six years if they learn English, pay a fine, pay any back taxes, and have no criminal record.” That produced a 72-25 majority for the second option.
In 2009, 61 percent in an April Washington Post/ABC News poll supported a program to allow illegal immigrants now living in the US to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements, compared to 35 percent who opposed such a program. And in a 2009 Pew Values Survey, 63 percent favored “providing a way for illegal immigrants currently in the country to gain legal citizenship if they pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs”, compared to just 34 percent who are opposed. Both questions showed more support for immigration reform than in 2007, despite the hard economic times, which might have been expected to promote increased hostility toward immigrants.
Today, the public continues to show strong support for immigration reform. In a just-released NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 64 percent said they would favor “a proposal to create a pathway to citizenship that would allow foreigners who have jobs but are staying illegally in the United States the opportunity to eventually become legal American citizens” versus just 35 percent who were opposed.
No matter what the fate of the current legislation before Congress, public support for immigration reform is likely to grow over time, as are positive feelings about immigrants and immigration. The declining white working class, for example, by 55-23, agrees that “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs and abuse government benefits” (2009 CAP/Progressive Studies Program survey). But rising groups like Hispanics (26 percent agree vs. 58 percent disagree), white college graduates (35 percent agree vs. 46 percent disagree) and professionals (23 percent agree vs. 60 percent disagree) feel quite differently.
And then there is the Millennial generation which has consistently demonstrated an open and positive attitude toward immigration. In a 2006 Pew Gen Next poll, 18-25 year old Millennials, by 52-38, said immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talent, rather than are a burden on the country because they take our jobs, housing and health care, compared to very narrow pluralities in this direction among Gen Xers and Boomers and 50-30 sentiment in the other direction among those 61 and over. Similarly, in a 2004 Pew survey, 67 percent of 18-25 year old Millennials thought the growing number of immigrants strengthens American society and only 30 percent believed this trend threatens our customs and values—again, much stronger positive sentiment than among any other generation. And in terms of immigration reform specifically, 2007 Pew data indicated that roughly two-thirds of Millennials support providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Consistent with this finding, 73 percent of 18-29 year old Millennials supported giving illegal immigrants “the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements” in an April 2009 Washington Post/ABC News poll, 31 points higher than support among seniors.
The verdict of the data seem clear. The future belongs to immigration reform and all conservatives can do at this point is try to delay the inevitable.