The Magazine

The Coming Immigration Deal

Congress will follow the polls.

Jun 19, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 38 • By JEFFREY BELL
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THE POLITICS OF IMMIGRATION REFORM changed on March 27. That's the day the Senate Judiciary Committee approved (in a vote of 12-6) an immigration reform bill that included increased border security and law enforcement, a guest-worker program, and a path to legalization for the roughly 12 million illegals who live in the United States.

Almost immediately, polling on the immigration issue shifted toward the pro-immigrant side. Specifically, when voters were asked whether they favor "enforcement only" (like the bill passed by the House in late 2005), a guest-worker program only, or a bill similar to the Senate bill that embodied both these elements and legalization, they overwhelmingly favored the Senate approach. This polling pattern has not changed significantly in the weeks since late March--weeks that included floor debate and Senate passage (by 62-36) of the Martinez-Hagel bill, which resembles the Judiciary bill reported to the floor on March 27.

There is a second way the issue changed that day. It became the dominant domestic policy debate of the 109th Congress and in the nation at large. It's an issue on which virtually every American voter has an opinion. For that reason, it became an issue that Congress will feel great pressure to act on before its term expires.

When the 109th Congress began meeting in early 2005, Social Security reform was picked by many to dominate domestic policy debate. One reason it did not is that, by its nature, fixing Social Security is a postponable issue. The demographic deficits projected for the decades when the baby boom retires have not begun to build up. Since few voters were attracted to the president's proposals for personal accounts and progressive benefit reductions, or to hinted Democratic alternatives that mostly involved higher taxes, the electorate found inaction highly preferable.

None of this is the case regarding immigration. The issue has been building for years, in very visible ways: In our work force, in our schools, on our streets, and in more and more states and regions. It's safe to say that few voters believe immigration has been handled well by elected officials of either party at any level of government--federal, state, or local. Given this background, try to picture the public's reaction to a congressman or senator returning home this fall and announcing that, given all the available alternatives, Congress did the right thing by doing nothing. Since the public's reaction to such an announcement is not likely to be favorable, or perhaps even printable, it seems likely that this is a picture we will never see. That is, the 109th Congress will ultimately come to agreement on some version of immigration reform.

What, then, are the parameters of public opinion? Though most people at most times in most countries are at the very least nervous about a massive inflow of foreigners, Americans are of all nationalities the least nervous. We have more experience with immigrants than any other nation. Almost all of our voters are descended from immigrants, and most American voters believe most immigrants come for good reasons--to work and to enjoy our higher level of political and economic freedoms.

What voters do not like is an immigration system that increasingly relies on, and winks at, breaking the law. Voters never liked this, but they became especially unfavorable to it after 9/11. They want greater control of our borders, and more enforcement of immigration laws inside our borders.

Political elites, Republican and Democratic alike, often seem to operate on the assumption that voters are either pro-immigrant or pro-enforcement, but not both. In fact, most voters see no contradiction between the two. Nor is there a huge difference between rank-and-file Republicans and rank-and-file Democrats. Solid, but by no means unanimous, majorities in each party favor both immigration--including a path to legalization for those already here--and increased enforcement of immigration laws.

According to Ed Goeas, a pro-immigration pollster who works mainly for conservative Republican candidates, that has been true for many years. Goeas has a special right to his opinion: In polling for the Manhattan Institute, he predicted months in advance that once a comprehensive immigration reform was on the table--which happened on March 27--comprehensive reform would become the most popular policy choice in the electorate.