Analysis

Political Splits on Immigration Reflect Voters' Ambivalence

Orange-clad members of Grupo Beta, a unit of Mexico's national immigration agency, offer medical care and other assistance to migrants near the U.S. border and take their names in case family members later inquire about them.
Orange-clad members of Grupo Beta, a unit of Mexico's national immigration agency, offer medical care and other assistance to migrants near the U.S. border and take their names in case family members later inquire about them. (By Andrea Bruce -- The Washington Post)

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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

When Congress returns to the unfinished business of immigration early in the new year, lawmakers will be trying to reconcile sometimes conflicting public attitudes on an issue that has become a crusade to some conservative Republicans but has defied effective solutions over the past three decades.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in mid-December found Americans alarmed by the federal government's failure to do more to block the flow of illegal immigration and critical of the impact of illegal immigration on the country but receptive to the aspirations of undocumented immigrants living and working in the United States.

"You wonder why politicians are not always consistent," said Republican pollster Glen Bolger. "It's because public opinion's not always consistent."

Immigration still ranks below the war in Iraq, terrorism, health care and the economy on the public's list of priorities, but in many parts of the country -- not just those areas near the Mexican border -- it has become an issue of pressing significance because of its economic, racial and, more recently, national security implications.

If there is any consensus today, it is on the need for enhanced border security, driven not only by traditional concerns about jobs and the strains illegal immigrants put on state and local resources but also by newer worries that the porous border makes America more vulnerable to terrorists. The public and politicians are far more divided on the difficult question of how to treat the roughly 11 million illegal migrants already in the country.

Conservative anti-immigration advocates controlled the debate last month in the House, which passed stringent legislation calling for the construction of nearly 700 miles of fence along the Mexican border and including strict measures to police employers to prevent them from hiring undocumented workers. Critics call it the harshest immigration bill in memory.

That bill responds directly to public anger over illegal immigration. The Post-ABC News poll found that four in five Americans think the government is not doing enough to prevent illegal immigration, with three in five saying they strongly hold that view.

The same poll found that 56 percent of Americans believe that illegal immigrants have done more to hurt the country than to help it, with 37 percent saying they help the country. About three in five Republicans and a bare majority of Democrats agreed that illegal immigrants are detrimental to the country.

The only groups in the poll who disagreed were people with postgraduate degrees, those with incomes exceeding $100,000 and nonwhite respondents. The Post-ABC poll did not include enough Hispanics to provide an accurate reading of their sentiment, but a Pew Hispanic Center survey last summer found that two in three Latinos said that undocumented migrants help the economy.

Still, many Americans expressed support for trying to help those already here to stay and achieve legal status. The Post-ABC poll asked whether illegal immigrants who are working here should be given the opportunity to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status, or be rounded up and deported to their native countries. Three in five Americans said undocumented workers should be given the opportunity to stay and become citizens.

Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster, said Americans are ambivalent on this issue. "There is a clear view that families that are here, that are working, paying taxes and contributing to society, ought to be able to get regularized status," he said. "On the other hand, there is a view about not rewarding illegal behavior."

Public frustration is clear, and politicians have responded. In Arizona, irritation over illegal immigration spawned the controversial Minutemen movement, with citizens organizing to police the borders on their own. Democrats as well as Republicans have felt the heat. Two Democratic governors, Arizona's Janet Napolitano and New Mexico's Bill Richardson, declared emergencies along their borders and shifted state resources to local governments to help pay the costs of dealing with the phenomenon.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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