The national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted August 20-24 among 1,501 adults, finds that 33% say the priority should be on better border security and tougher enforcement of immigration laws, while 23% prioritize creating a way for people in the U.S. illegally to become citizens if they meet certain conditions. About four-in-ten (41%) say both should be given equal priority.
These priorities have changed since Feb. 2013, early in Obama’s second term. The share saying that both approaches should be given equal priority has fallen from 47% to 41%. Over the same period, the percentage prioritizing enhanced border security and stronger enforcement of immigration laws has risen eight points, from 25% to 33%. There has been little change in the percentage saying the priority should be creating a path to citizenship for people in the U.S. illegally (25% in Feb. 2013, 23% today).
The poll did not ask about legalizing rather than awarding citizenship to those here illegally. Since even strong proponents of reform in Congress have acknowledged that they are willing to consider the former, it’s not clear why only citizenship was included as an option in the poll. In any event, Republicans, Democrats and independents all show increased interest in securing the border as their top immigration priority.
There are a few takeaways from this. (Nothing will be done in Congress before the election, and it is uncertain if the White House will act.)
First, to the degree Obama encouraged the border rush, he will have shifted the debate away from his and his party’s position. Call it ironic, but once again there is no one like Obama when it comes to creating majorities — against his policies (e.g. Obamacare) and based on objections to his stewardship of both domestic and foreign affairs. Had he not unilaterally the changed the law and committed himself to doing it again, the border mess might not have occurred and Republicans would be on defense. Now the president is, with only 38 percent of Americans favoring his handling of immigration reform in a recent poll.
Second, as someone who favors immigration reform, I can see this turn of events leading to consensus on a plan similar to what House Republicans had been discussing: 1.) Tough border security measures, eVerify and a visa overstay program; 2.) certification that border security has been successful; and then 3.) everything else. The everything else can address highly skilled workers, an agricultural guest worker plan and legalization for foreign students and the DREAMers (who many would agree should be citizenship-eligible). The path to legalization (i.e. getting in line for a green card behind those currently waiting) beyond a probationary period could then include a fine, back taxes and an English literacy requirement. Given how seriously the public now views the border problem, getting everyone on a border-security-first approach now should meet reform skeptics’ concerns and constitute about the best reformers are going to get.
Third, if the president has frittered away the Democrats’ advantage on the issue, the decks may be cleared for a Republican to increase his party’s share of the Hispanic vote in the 2016 presidential race. Republicans’ continuing to talk about self-deportation while opposing any legalized status for anyone here illegally is going to run into a wall of resistance among nontraditional but gettable voters. But a Republican who adheres to the border-first approach and — this part is key — sketches out an agenda that deals with issues these voters (and everyone else) cares about in a common-sense way can, like George W. Bush, get a significant percentage of the nonwhite vote. Those very same issues (e.g. health care, education, jobs, fighting poverty) have also been the issues that attract interest from women voters.
It turns out it is much easier to reach consensus by moving not toward a more generous and quicker path to citizenship, but in the direction of security hawks. The president unwittingly provided the impetus to do so. In 2015, Republicans in office and running for office would do well to address the issue — on their terms. Refusing to do so, as they did on health care pre-Obamacare, may once again leave the issue to Democrats.
If immigration lawmaking is slow and frustrating, look at it this way: This is precisely the sort of bipartisan, consensus-building and recalibration the Constitution envisions and for which good-government-types have been pining. Speed is not required, or even desired in such situations.