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Immigration: Between Pragmatism And Control

by Tamar Jacoby

You could feel the blistering resentment even outside the room, watching from behind the two-way mirror at the polling facility in suburban Dallas. The twenty likely voters participating in the focus group - they happened to be Republican women - were talking about illegal immigration, and they were mad: hopping mad. These foreigners were hurting the country, the women said, both economically and culturally. They came to the United States not to work, but to take advantage of the welfare benefits. They were getting a free ride - health care, education and other services - on the backs of native-born Americans. They preferred entering illegally and living on the wrong side of the law - after all, if they were legal, they would have to pay their fair share in taxes. And they didn't, the Texans were sure, want to become Americans. The more the women thought about the issue, the angrier they grew, and several went so far as to question whether the U.S. should remain a nation of immigrants.

But then the moderator - a soft-spoken professional trained to advance the discussion as neutrally as possible - started to push the women to think about a solution: how did the group feel the government should deal with illegal immigration? The mood didn't shift abruptly. Neither the anger nor the frustration disappeared. But the more they thought about what ought to be done, the more pragmatic even these women grew.

Did it make sense to deport the 12 million illegal immigrants (that's what the group called them) already in the country? At first, some of the women thought it did and said so, belligerently. But the more they talked about it, the less sure they grew, and after about 20 minutes they came to a reluctant consensus: no, it probably wasn't practical to locate and deport 12 million people. What if the U.S. simply got tougher: more enforcement on the border, a crackdown on employers, measures to make sure that immigrants received no government benefits? Would this eventually drive the foreigners to leave the country of their own accord? At first, in this case too, some of the women liked the idea. But as they pondered it, once again, the group had to concede: it was hard to see this working - most immigrants have put down roots in the U.S. and would be reluctant to leave, even under harsher circumstances.

So what to do, the moderator pressed, and you could feel the group straining as it worked its way toward an answer. "All right," someone finally said, "I don't like it - I don't like it one bit. But I guess, as a practical matter, we've got to do something. They aren't going to leave, so we'll have to come up with some kind of system. We'll need to register them and eventually let them legalize."

These happened to be Texas Republicans, in some things more extreme than other voters. But survey after survey shows, on this issue, they are surprisingly representative: their unlikely turn toward pragmatism on immigration is typical of what is happening across America. Whether they live on the border or far from it, whichever party they belong to, the overwhelming majority of Americans are moving toward a practical solution for illegal immigration: one that includes both tougher enforcement and a path to citizenship for those already in the country. But that doesn't mean that most are happy with their position or untroubled by the way the issue is playing out in the U.S. today.

As one set of political consultants, at the left-leaning Third Way Institute, stressed in a recent analysis, just because the public "supports" a practical solution, that doesn't mean that it is "popular." And just how this ambivalent pragmatism will hold up in the 2006 mid-term elections is far from clear. Meanwhile, the Hispanic population is acutely aware of the larger public's mixed feelings, particularly the resentment of Republicans like these Texas women. And this in turn is driving Latinos to greater participation in politics - although, in this case too, with uncertain consequences, at least in the short run.

Though not always as bitter or candid as the Texas focus group, American voters are all but unanimous in their frustration with the dysfunctional immigration system. In part, this is a product of the 9/11 attacks. In part, it is driven by the numbers: the sheer number of unauthorized immigrants arriving annually and spreading through the U.S., including to regions unaccustomed to a foreign influx. But the nation is no longer - if it ever was - divided between those who want to be tough and those who would rather be compassionate, between those preoccupied by law and order and those driven by concern for immigrants' rights. Virtually all voters, poll after poll shows, are looking for more effective enforcement and enhanced security. The word that comes up again and again, no matter how the questions are put, is "control." People feel the system is out of control and, whether liberal or conservative, they want to restore the rule of law.

This hunger for greater control and legality is reflected in the national debate about immigration: no policymaker, on the right or left, wants to be seen as soft on enforcement. And even stalwart proponents of liberalizing reforms - measures that would allow more legal immigrants to enter the country - are in favor of tightening up the border and cracking down on employers who hire unauthorized workers. The Third Way analysts sum up the situation this way: "The traditional progressive messages of fairness and justice lack potency," they argue. Much more effective words are "tough, fair and practical." And when they talk about "fairness," these consultants don't mean fairness to immigrants, but, on the contrary, fairness to taxpayers - to folks, like the Texas women, who feel that immigrants are a burden, using more than their fair share of government services.

Still, stern as the mood is, both among the public and in Washington, it's important not to exaggerate it or mistake it for something it isn't. Just because voters are tough doesn't mean that they're mean-spirited. When the Third Way's pollsters asked what should be the goal of immigration policy, respondents put restoring "respect for the law" first (91 percent support) and "punishing illegal immigrants" or treating them "like the criminals they are" decisively last (only 18 and 15 percent support). Similarly, when asked which they prefer, the legislation passed by the Senate in May or the much harsher bill produced by the House last December, few Americans opt for the House's punitive approach, which among other things would make felons of all unauthorized immigrants. A June NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, for example, found only 33 percent in favor of the House bill. And a recent Time Magazine sounding suggested that support may be even weaker - no more than 25 percent. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing that the push for reform be driven by a desire for legality and security. Altruism and compassion need to be part of the mix, but surely policy based on tough-minded self-interest is likely to be more enduring.

Meanwhile, what's most surprising about public attitudes is how many voters, Democrat and Republican, grasp that any effective solution must include an answer for the unauthorized migrants already in the country. As in the case of the Texas focus group, this may, for many, be a grudging concession. But it's also common sense: it's hard to see how we as a nation can hope to solve the problem of illegal immigration unless and until we deal with the 12 million illegal immigrants already here. And whatever the reason, recent surveys are remarkably consistent. According to the Gallup Poll, Washington Post/ABC News, Time, NBC News/Wall Street Journal, CNN and the Republican National Committee, among other polling teams, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the public would be willing to let unauthorized immigrants stay in the U.S. and earn eventual citizenship, provided that they met certain requirements like paying back taxes and learning English. The majority of voters don't consider this amnesty. On the contrary, for most, it's simply pragmatism - what better way to reduce illegality while also increasing the number of taxpayers.

The problem is the other 20 to 25 percent of voters - and, survey after survey shows, that's how many of them there are, no more, no less. A USA Today poll in late May painted their portrait in vivid detail: mostly male, white and without a college degree, they believe immigrants are bad for the economy, want to build a wall along the border and adamantly oppose allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens. Only about half are Republicans, so assuming GOP voters make up roughly half of the electorate, these diehards account for no more than a quarter of the party. But many Republican politicians, particularly the House, are convinced that they are more intense - more concerned, more motivated, more likely to vote the basis of this single issue - than anyone else likely to go to the polls in November. So they have become the tail wagging the dog of the national debate about immigration, leading many Republicans to conclude that blocking reform is a political winner. That's why House members spent the summer traveling around the country, holding "hearings" designed to stop the two chambers from coming together to enact a law in the fall.

Just how this will play out in the months ahead is still unclear. One possibility is a race to the bottom. Republican diehards could continue to block progress toward a bill, and desperate Democrats could conclude that they should try to outflank them on the right, campaigning not on the need for new law but on the Bush administration's failure to enforce the border. This is already happening in several states with close races, and the dynamic could conceivably work to the GOP's advantage. But much depends on what kind of voters actually turn most close elections. If it's an energized base, as the hardliners hope, then tough-talking Republicans may indeed prevail, riding the intense anti-immigrant feelings of that diehard 20 to 25 percent of the public.

But it's equally possible that centrist swing voters are what make the difference in most races, and in that case, listing right on immigration may not be such a sound strategy. If a recent poll commissioned by National Public Radio is any guide, voters in competitive districts are not particularly focused on immigration: it's way down the list of the electoral issues they care about. And to the degree they are concerned about it, it doesn't seem to drive them decisively either way - toward either Republican or Democratic candidates - except perhaps in cases where they are turned off by a candidate's harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric.

And there is still another way in which the Republican strategy could backfire. A recent poll conducted for the Manhattan Institute and the National Immigration Forum suggests that some voters, albeit still a minority, are inclined to punish Congress if it fails to deal with immigration before Election Day. Right now, according to our survey, they blame both Democrats and Republicans. But that could change - the Third Way poll already finds them blaming the GOP disproportionately. And if anything, I believe, House Republicans are setting themselves up for a fall. How can they travel around the country all summer, holding hearings and insisting that immigration is the most pressing domestic policy problem we face, then come back to Washington in September and sit on their hands? They risk losing not only swing voters put off by their nativist grandstanding, but also staunch Republicans, who feel more strongly than anyone else that it is "very" or "extremely important" for Congress to come to grips with immigration this year. Even among people not inclined to base their vote on immigration, a failure to act could play into a larger sense of dissatisfaction with the federal government. According to our poll, most voters feel that Congress is not doing "a good job at solving the problems that are important" to them - and 44 percent might just stay home from the polls or vote against their representative as a result.

But whatever the outcome this fall in this or that district, there can be no question about the long-term consequence of the current debate: the damage the Republican Party is doing itself with the fastest growing voting block in the country - Hispanics.

Republican hardliners dismiss this danger, often with shocking carelessness. Some argue that the GOP can never succeed in attracting Hispanics - that like African-Americans, Latinos are inherently and inalterably Democrats. Others don't hear the poison in their own rhetoric - don't grasp how deeply insulting it is, even to assimilated Latinos ambivalent about immigration. Still others sense vaguely that something is wrong, but then shrug it off, reassuring themselves that future Latino voters will quickly forget today's fleeting rhetoric. Nothing could be further from the truth - the poohpoohers are wrong on all three counts.

As with the general public, Hispanic opinion too can seem murky - the crosscurrents are complex and the polling often ambiguous. But a few facts stand out clearly, and they all point in the same direction. The contest for the future hangs primarily on the votes of foreign-born Latinos. (The native-born already lean heavily Democratic.) And according to the Pew Hispanic Center, these recent arrivals have been the most traumatized by this year's debate on immigration. When asked which party has a better position on the issue, the share of newcomers favoring the GOP has dropped to just 12 percent (down from 28 percent two years ago), with nearly three times that many favoring the Democratic stance. And when asked which of the parties is more concerned about Latinos, even the foreign-born now choose the Democrats by a margin of three-to-one.

Of course, on immigration as on any issue, politics can guide us only so far. We as a nation need to control our borders, and national interest, not electoral jockeying, should ultimately be what drives policy. But what's striking about immigration today is just how closely politics and policy are gradually lining up. The approach most Americans favor - a package that combines tougher enforcement with greater honesty about the immigrants already in the country - is also, as it happens, the wisest, most pragmatic course: our only hope of making up for the failed, unrealistic policies of recent decades. This new alignment isn't an accident: as the Dallas focus group showed, it grows directly from the public's growing grasp, albeit sometimes a reluctant one, of just what is at stake and why it matters to the country. How can voters, even uninformed voters, get it so right, while so many of their elected representatives get it so wrong?

Of course, the women in Dallas weren't entirely sure either, their emotions often at war with their better judgment. The next few months will be a telling test - of which of the women's instincts win out, but also how well our politics capture their preferences.

Reproduced with permission from Tamar Jacoby. This article appeared in the Manhattan Institute For Policy Research on October 2006.

About The Author

Tamar Jacoby is a Senior Fellow at The Manhattan Institute.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.