The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans don’t want mass deportations. But they are sort of okay with increased deportations.

Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said Sunday on "Meet the Press" that what the Obama administration needs to do is "immediately deport" young undocumented immigrants. The comment came as part of a discussion about the estimated 52,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America who have tried to cross the border since October.

Americans' opinions on deportation aren't quite so absolute. Polling from the past few years shows that few people want to start deporting undocumented immigrants en masse.

In November 2012, a United Technologies/National Journal poll found that only 17 percent of the public thought all illegal immigrants should be deported.

A Quinnipiac University poll from July 2012 showed that 55 percent of Americans approved of an Obama administration policy that offered young undocumented immigrants work permits rather than deporting them.

In a CNN/ORC poll from early this year, 54 percent of respondents said the government should focus on giving illegal immigrants an opportunity to become legal residents instead of immediately deporting them.

Labrador is in the minority -- that much is clear -- but while polling regularly shows that Americans overwhelmingly favor legalizing illegal immigrants, many still like the idea of deportation. In February 2014, the Pew Research Center asked Americans what they thought about the increased deportations of undocumented immigrants that have taken place under President Obama.

The different responses provoked by asking Americans to state their opinions on certain issues in different ways highlight how little much of the public probably has thought about this issue. However unclear Americans' view on what U.S. immigration policy should look like, they definitely aren't pushing for deportations a la Labrador. Forty-five percent of the public thinks increased deportations are a good thing, and 45 percent thinks they are a bad thing.

The type of people prone to voting for politicians with Labrador-like positions, however, are clearly more likely to agree with him.

Fifty-five percent of Republicans think increased deportations are a good thing. Sixty-five percent of tea party Republicans think the same. Because many conservatives considered the GOP primary loss of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) last month as a symptom of his support for immigration reform, however accurate that analysis might be, it won't be surprising if more Republicans voice similar sentiments in the coming months.

It also won't be surprising if Republicans don't say anything on the subject. When Mitt Romney discussed "self-deportation" in a 2012 Republican presidential primary debate, the Republican National Committee called the comment "horrific." Former Florida governor Jeb Bush called crossing the border illegally for family reasons an "act of love," a comment that was quickly met with complaints. Karl Rove said Bush's remarks were "inartful." Good press usually does not follow when Republicans decide to talk about deportation.

And Republicans may not be as prone to agree with Labrador as one might initially think, given the data on increased deportations.

When Pew asked whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay legally, 64 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of tea party Republicans said they should.

Although the temptation to side with increased deportation is there for Republicans, the country seems to be moving in the opposite direction, however confusedly. Although Republicans express the least support for allowing undocumented immigrants to stay legally, 89 percent of Hispanics — voters the GOP has said it sorely needs in upcoming elections — have the strongest support for these measures.

Labrador discussed the gulf between these two groups during an appearance on "Meet the Press" last July.

"If we do it right, I think it's going to be good for us. But if we don't do it right, what's going to happen is we're going to lose our base because we're still going to have a large number of illegal immigrants coming into the United States, and the Hispanic community is not going to listen to us because they're going to always listen at this point to the people that are offering more, that are offering a faster pathway to citizenship. I think we lose on both grounds if we don't do it right."

For now, the American public isn't quite sure what's "right." It might be open to baby steps when it comes to deportation, but Labrador's suggestion to "immediately deport" isn't popular yet.