Immigration reform group says polls showing support for pathway to citizenship are skewed

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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A new poll shows that only 11 percent of likely voters strongly back a conditional amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants, while 39 percent of the voters strongly favor the immigrants’ gradual return to their home countries.

The poll of 1,000 likely voters was taken by an immigration reform group, the Center for Immigration Studies, which openly favors a reduction in the annual intake of roughly 1 million immigration.

The poll clashes with results from other polling companies, some of which show apparently much higher support for letting illegal immigrants stay in the country.

The polls that show more support for letting illegals stay are touted by advocates for ethnic lobbies and progressive groups.

They’re pushing to win citizenship for the 11 million immigrants — including roughly 8 million working-age people — plus their relatives. Approximately 20 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed. (RELATED ANALYSIS: In Obama’s economy, immigrants win out)

A Gallup poll of adults that was released Feb. 5 showed 72 percent approval among respondents when they were asked “Would you vote for a law that would allow undocumented immigrants living in the United States the chance to become legal residents or citizens if they meet certain requirements?”

But such loose questions — which includes two options, as well as a profusion of vague words, such as “undocumented,” “chance” and “certain requirements” — encourage Americans to express their normal sympathy for immigrants, said Steven Camarota, the research director at Center for Immigration Studies.

“Once you peel that stuff back,” he told The Daily Caller, “what the public generally wants is for illegals to go home and for the law to be enforced.”

The CIS poll was conducted in late January by Pulse Opinion Research. Thirty-nine percent of the respondents were Democrats, 32 percent were Republicans, and 72 percent were white.

Immigration is a “very difficult issue on which to measure public opinion,” said Glen Bolger, a pollster and co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies.

Pollsters should pick their words carefully, and ask a series of 15 or more questions, he said.

Many Americans know few details about the issue, he said. In a poll, they know their view is not decisive, and they tend to express their sympathy for immigrants without having to grapple with the costs and benefits, he said.

“Generally, the best way to test the immigration issue is to give [respondents] both points of view and see what side most come down on,” he said.

“Many pollsters do a terrific job, but still it is important to understand how a change in words can affect the answers,” said Karlyn Bowman, a polling expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

Questions should not push respondents to approve only one desirable option — because Americans often want both options, she said. Instead, polls should allow respondents to say how much they favor each of several options, she told TheDC.

That’s important because “most people don’t feel a need to resolve their contradictory views,” she said. For example, many Americans believe abortion is murder, but also that it should be legal, she said.

On immigration, many Americans believe that “compassion for people who are here [illegally] is very important, and [also] that you want to keep your borders secure,” she said.

The main poll question in CIS’s poll was short and direct; “Would you prefer to see illegal immigrants in the United State go back to their home countries or be given legal status?”

Respondents were offered three options.

Fifteen percent picked “not sure.”

According to the poll, 52 percent of voters and 50 percent of “moderates” picked “go back to their home countries.”

A total of 33 percent of respondents and 32 percent of “moderates” picked “be given legal status.”

The question did include the emotional term “illegal immigrant,” but it did not include the word “amnesty” nor mention the financial cost of accepting the new immigrants.

The CIS poll also measured intensity, which pollsters say is vital for gauging the likely impact of respondents’ views on Election Day.

When the 53 percent of respondents who picked the “go home” option were asked about their intensity, 78 percent of Republicans, 67 percent of moderates and 64 percent of liberals said they hold the “go home” opinion very strongly.

Among the 33 percent of respondents who picked “be given legal status,” the survey showed that 21 percent of Republicans, 38 percent of moderates and 41 percent of liberals hold that view strongly.

When the “prefer” and intensity questions are combined, they showed that 39 percent of respondents strongly endorse the “go home” priority, while only 11 of respondents strongly endorse the “legal status” option.

A mid-January poll of adults funded by AP, by contrast, reported that 35 percent strongly favored — and 23 percent strongly opposed — “providing a legal way for illegal immigrants already in the United States to become U.S. citizens.”

The AP poll also showed a shift since 2009, when only 21 percent strongly favored “a legal way,” while 38 percent strongly opposed.

The term, “a legal way,” is vague, and allows people to say they support the award of citizenship without having to grapple with related questions, such as the number and cost of immigrants.

The various polls show there’s no consensus on immigration, Bolger said.

To declare a consensus, multiple polls should show 60 percent support for a series of complementary propositions, according to Bolger. But in most immigration polls, where respondents show high support for the discordant goals of strong enforcement and lenience towards people who aren’t in the country legally, he said that isn’t the case.

The CIS’ nine-question poll also asked respondents if they would “be more likely to vote for a political party that supports enforcing immigration laws or a political party that supports legalizing illegal immigrants?”

Nearly 75 percent of Republicans, 50 percent of moderates and 26 percent of liberals picked the party that enforced the immigration laws.

In contrast, 14 percent of Republicans, 30 percent of moderates and 63 percent of liberals said they would be “more likely to vote for … [a] political party that supports legalizing illegal immigrants.”

When asked to say if “America needs large numbers of immigrants to fill these [low-wage] jobs … [or] there are plenty of Americans to such jobs,” only 24 percent of moderates and 32 percent of liberals picked the “America needs” option.

In contrast, 74 percent of Republicans, 68 percent of moderates and 58 percent of liberals agreed “there or plenty of Americans … [and] if employers can’t fund workers, they should pay more and treat workers better.”

The CIS poll also suggests that many Americans oppose amnesty because they don’t think the laws are being enforced, said Camarota.

When asked why so many illegal immigrants are in the country, 71 percent of moderates and 49 percent of liberals said “we have not made a real effort to enforce our immigration laws.”

In contrast, only 16 percent of moderates and 31 percent of liberals said “we have not allowed enough legal immigrants into the country, so they have to come illegally.”

Most people in the polling business ask the wrong questions on immigration, Camarota said, because they share the elite consensus that large-scale immigration is good.

That sharp difference in elite and ordinary attitudes shows up in some polls that ask CEOs and mid-level managers, union leaders and union members, or church administrators and church attendees their views on immigration, he said. (RELATED: Split between union leaders, members on immigration shows up at White House)

Voters can get few details from the established media, for example, that immigration courts have issued 600,000 deportation orders that have not been completed, Camarota said.

But people “have a sense … that we’re not keeping track [of visitors]. They have a sense that illegal immigrants — whether it be the president’s uncle or aunt — can live in the U.S. with impunity and the federal law enforcement looks the other way.”

Via routine reports in the media, he said, they can see that illegal immigrants “sign up for Medicare, demonstrate, do interviews, get Social Security Numbers, get in-state college tuition, drivers’ licenses …. [and] all of that strikes the public as a clear indication that we’re not enforcing the law.”

“The public might support amnesty more if they weren’t convinced [immigration] law is not being enforced,” he added.

Fundamentally, he said, “the public has some sympathy for illegal immigrants — which is perfectly understandable — but it feels even more strongly about American sovereignty and rule of law.”

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