Immigration Reform 2013: Everyone Agrees That Things Are Terrible, But That's It

In today’s polarized political climate, one thing is certain: Americans all want to see immigration policies change. In a Pew poll released Thursday, 75% of Americans say U.S. immigration policy needs at least “major changes,” and a significant portion want to see policies “completely rebuilt.” And yet, despite overwhelming public dissatisfaction, the recent poll finds little convergence on the details of how to reform the system, revealing just how important — yet delicate — the issue remains for lawmakers.

While some have argued the Boston bombings might slow fervor for immigration reform, Pew finds virtually no change in public calls for reform since March. Immigration remains one of the most unpopular aspects of U.S. policy measured by the polling group (other issues measured include tax policy, education, health care, and homeland security).

The issue of a “path to citizenship,” however, remains ever-controversial despite perceived bipartisan gains in an immigration reform proposal from Congress’ “Gang of Eight.”  While 73% of respondents said there should be “a way” for illegal immigrants already in the country who meet certain requirements to stay, only 44% supported a path for illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship, while 25% favored permanent legal status as a solution.

Many report dissatisfaction with current federal immigration enforcement programs. Fifty-three percent report that they believe the government can do “a lot more” to reduce illegal immigration. However, this question is notably skewed based on ideological differences, where far more conservative Republicans claim government should do more to secure borders than liberal Democrats.

Even legal immigration programs are viewed critically, as only 31% found current legal immigration levels to be satisfactory (although respondents are split on whether or not legal immigration levels should increase or decrease).

And yet, only 19% of respondents report following the congressional immigration debate closely. Indeed, only four in ten Americans know the current bill was a bipartisan effort, despite the high degree of fanfare in Washington for the “Gang of Eight” coalition as a beacon of hope for bipartisan solutions in today’s divided Congress.

This latest poll helps reveal just how fragile the issue remains for lawmakers. Perhaps low engagement with current debates battling on in Congress reflects a degree of public fatigue from a long history of partisan deadlock on the issue, combined with a degree of disillusionment with an unpopular Congress.

Still, the public might do well to pay attention to the issue playing out in Congress with some degree of hope. As a recent Economist article helps highlight, today's bipartisan coalition for immigration reform remains “highly delicate.” While many are quick to claim Congressional reform efforts are “doomed” to face partisan bickering and fail, recent polling helps reveal that slow movement on this issue may not simply reflect bad politics in Washington. With American public opinion so remarkably passionate — but split — on the issue, Congress’ task to find a viable solution remains imposing, but ever-important.

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Rachel George

Rachel is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics. She holds a BA in Politics from Princeton and an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard. Her interests include journalism, U.S. foreign policy, human rights, and international law.

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