Why the ‘path to citizenship’ question is so tough for the GOP, in two charts

March 21, 2013

Earlier this week, we explored why the addressing questions about a "path to citizenship" for illegal immigrants has been so politically delicate for Republicans.

To answer that question in a more visual way, take a look at the two charts below, each of which illustrates the GOP divide over the question.

The first chart, which reflects data from a Public Religion Research Institute survey, shows that while more than six in 10 Americans favor allowing illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, Republicans are much more divided on the question.

A bare majority (53 percent) favor a path to citizenship, while 45 percent favor either legal status (but not citizenship) or deportation. And among those identifying with the tea party, there is even less support for a path to citizenship. By comparison, among Democrats and Independents, there is much stronger support for the idea.

(Note that the survey was funded in part by advocates for immigration reform, including the Ford Foundation and the Four Freedoms Fund.)

The next chart, which reflects data from a summer 2012 survey from The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, shows where, specifically, in the GOP the opposition to offering legal status to illegal immigrants is coming from. It's the tea party and "old school Republicans” -- described in the survey as “more male, white educated and wealthy" -- that offer the strongest opposition.

It's important to note that the immigration debate was in a very different place nationally, when the poll was taken. It was before the 2012 election and before Republicans had moved en masse toward embracing reform. But it's still a useful snapshot of the intra-party divide over immigration.

(For explanations of the different labels on the chart, click here.)

The bottom line is that while Republicans have increasingly moved toward embracing immigration reform and away from the hard-line postures that have defined the party in the past, a divide remains among the party faithful.

As long as there is an element of the party that opposes a path to citizenship, it could be difficult for leading Republicans -- especially those with an eye on 2016 who will need conservative support in the primaries if they run -- to embrace the idea unequivocally.

Sean Sullivan covers national politics for “The Fix.”
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Sean Sullivan | March 21, 2013