If the GOP postpones immigration reform, this man will be very happy. (AP Photo/Senate TV)
If the GOP postpones immigration reform, this man will be very happy. (AP Photo/Senate TV)

Diehard foes of immigration reform like to argue that the American people see securing the border as a far higher priority than doing something about the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here in this country. But now two polls have found that this is no longer true.

Gallup released a new poll this week finding that for the first time in all of its polling, the percentage of Americans who think it’s “extremely important” to do something about the 11 million is slightly greater than the percentage who think it’s extremely important to secure the border:

Americans now assign about equal importance to the two major aspects of immigration reform being debated in Washington. Forty-four percent say it is extremely important for the U.S. to develop a plan to deal with the large number of immigrants already living in the United States, and 43 percent say it’s extremely important to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the country by securing the borders. This is a shift from the past, when Americans were consistently more likely to rate border security as extremely important.

This comes after a CNN poll earlier this month found that a majority prioritizes doing something about undocumented immigrants who are already here, over securing the border and deporting them:

What should be the main focus of the U.S. government in dealing with the issue of illegal immigration — developing a plan that would allow illegal immigrants who have jobs to become legal U.S. residents, or developing a plan for stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. and for deporting those already here?

Become legal residents: 54

Stop illegals/deport: 41

This apparent shift in public attitudes – which comes just as House Republicans may be shelving reform for the year — is important. The need to secure the border has long been a rallying cry for those determined to impose difficult conditions on any plan that would offer some form of legalization to the 11 million, or worse, for those who hope to scuttle the latter entirely. No matter how strenuously foes insist otherwise, the Dem solution to the problem — the Senate bill — addresses both border security and the 11 million, and Dems would accept something to the right of the Senate bill. At any rate, two polls now suggest Americans place at least as much of a priority, or more, on doing something about the 11 million.

This is another reminder that this issue simply isn’t going away, and if anything, will only get harder for Republicans to address over time, rather than easier. For one thing, shelving immigration reform is tantamount to supporting the status quo — which is to say, leaving the 11 million in their current status, since deportation and/or self-deportation are not realistic options. (As one GOP operative who favors reform joked to me, I wonder who will win the contract to ship 11 million people out of the country?) The current trend seems to be that more and more Americans see the need to address the 11 million as a priority, and that will probably continue.

For another thing, the notion that Republicans have the luxury to wait on reform just isn’t rooted in reality. If anything, the immigration calendar for Republicans is unforgiving, rather than flexible. As even some Republican operatives are beginning to point out, postponing action now could mean the politics of immigration gets tied up in the GOP presidential primary, which will start up next year.

Evidence of this can be found in the internals of the CNN poll. Majorities of the American people — along with sizable majorities of independents, moderates, all age groups under 50, nonwhite voters, and women — all prioritize doing something about the 11 million. By contrast, solid majorities of Republicans and conservatives — and majorities of older, white, and rural voters – all prioritize stopping illegal immigrants from entering over addressing the 11 million.

As Ron Brownstein points out, immigration reform is an example of an area where Republicans continue to postpone the need to address “the cultural barriers that confront them in presidential contests, which draw a larger, younger, and more diverse electorate.” The CNN breakdown underscores that very neatly. What’s more, the fact that Republicans, conservatives, and older voters continue to have different priorities on this issue from that “younger and more diverse electorate” (as the CNN poll shows) could provide an opening for someone in next year’s GOP presidential primary to stake out an anti-”amnesty” stance, perhaps pulling the primary field to the right. This would make it still less likely that Republicans embrace reform next year — heading into another presidential election.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.