More than two weeks after the Gang of Eight unveiled its immigration-reform bill, an important question remains unanswered: Do the American people actually support it?
One could assume so, judging from the headlines on recent polling, which cite the “strong” or even “overwhelming” support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Indeed, these polls show large majorities — as high as 83 percent — favoring a pathway to citizenship. That might be significant if the Gang of Eight’s plan were merely a vague proclamation of support for the idea of giving illegal immigrants the opportunity to apply for citizenship at some point in the future. A closer look at the polling and at the bill’s provisions reveals a much more ambiguous picture of public support for the measure.
A Pew poll released in April asked respondents for their opinions on the bill, “from what you’ve seen and heard so far.” Just 33 percent said they favored the legislation, while 28 percent were opposed. A plurality of respondents (38 percent) said they “don’t know.” That’s hardly an overwhelming indication of support.
Most polls simply ask about the general concept of giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, and voters’ responses change significantly depending on how pollsters phrase the question. For example, when people are asked about giving citizenship to illegal immigrants who “meet certain requirements,” such as learning English, paying fines and back taxes, and passing a criminal-background check, support usually reaches overwhelming levels. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll published Wednesday, 83 percent of Americans would support a pathway to citizenship under these conditions.
However, a Washington Post/ABC News poll released in April asked the same question but without listing any special requirements. Not surprisingly, it showed support for a path to citizenship to be much lower: 54 percent among registered voters.
A Quinnipiac poll published Thursday offered the additional option of letting illegal immigrants stay in the country but not become eligible for citizenship. Only 11 percent of registered voters backed this option, but only 52 percent supported a full pathway. A Pew poll in April asked a similar question and found that only 43 percent of Americans favored a pathway to citizenship, with 24 percent preferring “legal residency” as an alternative.
If we can glean anything from these results, it is that a slim majority of Americans, or perhaps only a plurality, support the idea of a pathway to citizenship, which the Gang’s bill would provide, and that a larger majority would back a pathway to citizenship with certain requirements. But that does not necessarily translate into support for the legislation itself.
The Gang’s bill has requirements — to learn English, “pay taxes,” and pass a background check — but they aren’t quite as ironclad as advertised. For example, the bill would require that immigrants seeking citizenship merely be “satisfactorily pursuing a course of study . . . to achieve an understanding of English,” which is a watered-down version of the language requirement under current law. And even proponents of the bill have dropped their talking point that it would require illegal immigrants to pay “back taxes,” because it wouldn’t. Prospective citizens would have to pay “any applicable federal tax liability,” defined as “all Federal income taxes assessed” by the IRS from an official tax filing or audit. However, the off-the-books nature of illegal immigration means it is highly unlikely that either scenario would apply to those seeking legal status; they would simply have to start paying taxes once they became legalized.