There are wealthy Americans who interact with undocumented immigrants almost entirely as consumers of cheap labor; there are working-class Americans who interact with undocumented immigrants mostly as competitors for jobs; and those incentives do, in fact, fuel self-interested positions on the issue.
But so many undocumented immigrants have been in the United States for so long that literally millions are deeply integrated into American communities. They have friends, classmates, neighbors, and co-workers who are U.S. citizens. Many of them have enjoyed significant economic success too. All of that helps explain polls such as the one Fox News did in 2017, which noted that setting up “a system to legalize undocumented immigrants working in the U.S. receives bipartisan support: most Democrats (95 percent legalize vs. 4 percent deport), Republicans (69–28 percent) and independents (82–13 percent) want legalization to happen.”
In 2015, Pew found that “a solid majority (72%) of Americans—including 80% of Democrats, 76% of independents and 56% of Republicans—say undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay in this country legally if they meet certain requirements.” Most recently, a 2019 Gallup Poll found that 81 percent “favor allowing immigrants living illegally in the U.S. the chance to become citizens if they meet certain requirements over a period of time.”
Watching Lou Dobbs or listening to Rush Limbaugh, one could be forgiven for concluding that support for a substantial amnesty is a radical position that cosmopolitan elites want to foist on “regular Americans.” In fact, despite being a legislative improbability at the moment, amnesty is very popular in this country. It is opponents of amnesty who are out of step with “regular Americans.”
That majorities of Americans favor a qualified amnesty is strong evidence for the proposition that it is the policy that would make citizens best off. Even those motivated by selfless humanitarian concerns derive value from getting their way in politics. But it is not definitive evidence, in part because it doesn’t tell us much about salience. Maybe lots of people favor amnesty but don’t care about it that much, while a smaller number oppose it with a strong, passionate hatred.
Let’s assume that among the minority of American citizens who oppose granting legal status to most undocumented immigrants, a sizable faction counts the issue as among the most important, or close to it, and opposes any amnesty intensely. Are any of their fellow citizens similarly passionate in the other direction?
There are, in fact, millions of American citizens who very likely value amnesty much more highly than the vast majority of its most passionate opponents value stopping it. Pew Research found in 2008 that “the number of U.S.-born children in mixed-status families (unauthorized immigrant parents and citizen children) has expanded rapidly in recent years, to 4 million in 2008 from 2.7 million in 2003.” That number is almost certainly even higher than 4 million today.