The debate over a path to citizenship is resolved among the public, if not in Congress

March 29, 2013

As the renewed debate over the nation's immigration laws continues on Capitol Hill, this much is clear: Most Americans favor creating a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.

And the more Americans hear about specific requirements a path to citizenship would involve, the more likely they are to endorse it.


(Jose Luis Magana/Reuters)

Just take a look at the following chart of recent polling. It reflects majority support for a path to citizenship in nearly all surveys. It also lays bare an important (and oft overlooked) truth about polling: The precise wording of questions really does matter.

Support for a path to citizenship was strongest in a Fox News poll conducted last month in which more than seven in 10 voters expressed support for the idea. Take a closer look at the way the question was asked: "Do you favor or oppose allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the country and eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship, as long as they meet certain requirements like paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check?"

Very specific and chock full of conditions. Other polls that showed strong support for a path to citizenship also underscored in questions that the road would be paved with certain conditions. The Politico-GWU survey described a process that would not happen overnight (it mentions a "period of several years"), while the Public Religion Research Institute poll noted a path would be tied to "certain requirements."

And even in surveys where a simple support/oppose question was asked without the mention of specific requirements, a majority expressed support for a path to citizenship. In both the Associated Press-Gfk and Washington Post-ABC News polls, 55 percent or more said they favored opening an avenue to citizenship.

But what about the Pew Research Center survey, in which only 43 percent of Americans said illegal immigrants should be able to become citizens? The survey, which was released Thursday, caught our attention because it seemed to be an outlier. But again, the devil is in the details, and wording matters. The specific nature of the poll likely explains the discrepancy more than anything else.

Respondents were only asked about a path to citizenship after already endorsing the idea that illegal immigrants should be allowed to remain in the country legally. And opposing a path to citizenship -- in favor of permanent residency as non-citizens -- might seem less harsh to someone who already said they favor legal status on a previous question. What's more, while the meeting "certain requirements" qualifier was presented in the first Pew question, no specific requirements were mentioned in the follow-up question about citizenship.

Pew Research’s branched survey question reveals that while an overwhelming majority of the public supports extending rights to illegal immigrants, a significant share of this group would be happy withholding a route to citizenship.

As we've written in this space before, it's often politically difficult for Republicans to talk about a path to citizenship in broad strokes. That's because even as the party has turned over a new leaf on immigration reform, many conservative Republicans remain skeptical of a new effort to loosen restrictions.

What polling shows is that discussing specific conditions of a path to citizenship is the best way to attract support for the idea. Thus, we can expect that if leading Republicans do end up endorsing a specific path to citizenship, they will repeatedly underscore the requirements associated with that path when discussing it publicly.

Recently, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) each sought to walk a very fine line on the question of a path to citizenship, illustrating the degree of difficulty navigating the issue carries with it right now.

As to the broader question of how and if immigration reform can get done, the data underscore why key lawmakers have been carefully deliberating proposed changes and taking the time to figure out the specifics of what a proposed path to citizenship might look like. After all, the specifics are the keys to winning support from the public.

Sanford, Bostic trade blows in first debate: What began as a cordial debate grew ever more contentious Thursday night in South Carolina's 1st district. After former governor Mark Sanford (R) acknowledged his 2009 fall from grace, underdog candidate Curtis Bostic (R) questioned his viability as a GOP nominee, declaring him a "compromised candidate." Sanford hit back at Bostic, going after him for missing county council meetings and failing to disclose campaign finance information.

Bostic turned in a pretty steady performance while Sanford won applause from the audience for acknowledging his mistakes and insisting he's learned from them. With just four days left until Republicans vote in the runoff, Bostic's doing all he can to pull off an upset, including bringing in Rick Sanotrum to stump with him. But Sanford still looks to be in the driver's seat.

Fixbits:

Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) referred to Latinos working on a ranch by using the derogatory term "wetbacks."

Rush Limbaugh said conservatives have lost the gay marriage debate.

President Obama created a voting commission. In other news, he'll release his budget on April 10, and continue his push for gun control in Denver next week.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) joined a trio of senators threatening to filibuster Senate Democrats' gun control legislation.

The EPA is moving ahead with sweeping new rules.

Former South Dakota lieutenant governor Steve Kirby (R) isn't ruling out a Senate bid.

Former congressman Bob Barr is trying to make a return trip to Congress.

"It's good to live a normal life again," says Mitt Romney.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts was hit by credit card fraud.

Must-reads: 

"Cuccinelli vs. McAuliffe: Virginia governor’s race holds the eyes of the nation" -- Karen Tumulty, Washington Post

"The Senate Trouble-Maker in Waiting" -- Tim Alberta, National Journal

Clement is a pollster with Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media.

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Sean Sullivan | March 28, 2013