Washington is deeply engaged with immigration. The public? Not so much.

The debate over whether and how to reform the nation's immigration laws has seized the attention of Washington. But beyond the beltway, Americans are barely tuning in.

Fewer than half (44 percent) say they are following the debate very or fairly closely, according to a new Pew Research Center poll. And a plurality (38 percent) don't have an opinion on the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" measure that was recently introduced in the Senate. Those who do have an opinion are split over the bill.

The poll comes as conservative opponents have begun to fight the measure, which includes a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a component fewer than half of Americans are aware of, according to the Pew poll.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one the bill's architects and its chief conservative defender, has been waging an intense public relations campaign aimed at courting support from the political right and preventing opponents from sinking the measure's chances. So far, he's had a tough time.

The fact that the public is not engaged on the debate is a crucial factor for both defenders and opponents of reform. It means that either side can still shape public opinion. So it's no surprise we have seen such an intense lobbying effort both for and against the proposed overhaul.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that nearly all of the big individual aspects of the "Gang of Eight" bill won majority support, a sign that proponents can have the potential for success in selling their measure. But given that most people 1) aren't familiar with bill right now and 2) haven't made up their minds about it as a package, there remains ample opportunity for opponents to strike.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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Sean Sullivan · May 1, 2013