Recent immigration protests have created a backlash. Last month, 70 percent of the public said they felt sympathy for illegal immigrants and their families, according to a poll conducted by Opinion Research for CNN. This month, 57 percent said they do, a 13-point drop. Even so, most Americans continue to regard illegal immigrants sympathetically. In fact, the public's attitude toward illegal immigration is a mixture of sympathy and toughness.
The immigration debate is about three issues. The first is border security. On that, the public's priorities are clear. President Bush acknowledged them last month when he said, "The American people are right in saying to the government, 'Enforce the border.'" Meaning, do more to stop the flood of illegal immigrants by, for instance, increasing penalties for employers who hire them. That is what a bill passed by the House last December would do.
More than two-thirds of Americans approve of tougher sanctions on employers (68 percent to 27 percent in the April CNN poll). Asked this month about a bill that would increase border security with Mexico and make it harder for illegal aliens to find jobs, two-thirds again approved (69 percent to 24 percent). The bottom line: Keep illegal immigrants out.
What about those who are already here? In that case, sympathy takes over, especially for those who have been here for a while.
That's the second issue, a path to citizenship for the nearly 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States. Eighty-one percent of Americans polled this month said they favor allowing illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years to stay and apply for citizenship if they have a job and pay any back taxes they owe.
Does that mean that the public supports amnesty? The CNN poll also asked the question this way: What about legislation that would "give amnesty" to illegal immigrants who have been in this country for more than five years and who have a job and pay back taxes? Seventy-two percent favored the plan. Call the approach "amnesty" and support declines, but remains strong. The public appears to agree with Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., who insist that there's a difference between amnesty and "earned citizenship."
"It is not amnesty," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., "because the undocumented aliens will have to pay a fine, they will have to pay back taxes, they will undergo a thorough background investigation, they will have to learn English, they will have to work for six years, and they will have to earn the status of staying in the country and moving toward citizenship."
The public's view seems to be that if illegal immigrants have been here for a while and can demonstrate that they are now hardworking and law-abiding, this country should let them stay—but for God's sake, not let any more in.
That leaves the third issue: Bush's proposal for a guest-worker program. "Doesn't it make sense to have a rational temporary-worker plan that says you don't need to sneak across the border, you can come on a temporary basis to do a job Americans won't do?" Bush asked. The public is not sure. In the April CNN poll, people were split over a program that would allow foreigners to work in the United States temporarily "but require them to leave the country when that time was up and would not allow them to apply for U.S. citizenship." Forty-seven percent of respondents favored that approach while 45 percent opposed it.
Ordinary Americans already seem to know what studies have found. "One of the maxims in the immigration research field is that there is no such thing as a 'temporary worker,' " Barry Chiswick, an economics professor at the University of Illinois (Chicago), told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The issue arises when the temporary contract—the 'guest' period—is over. How does one get them to leave the country?"
Americans want to do everything possible to keep more illegal immigrants from coming in. That applies to immigrants who are likely to overstay "guest-worker" permits as well as those who come through broken borders.