Most Americans adamantly oppose both increasing the amount of legal immigration to the United States and legalizing those immigrants now here illegally, the two key elements in President Bush’s immigration overhaul proposal.
On no other foreign policy issue do average Americans disagree more with government and business leaders and other “elites” than on immigration.
“The number of people who want immigration increased is very small,” said Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies. “If 55 or 60 percent of the public wants less immigration, a third wants it the same and 7 percent wants it more — [Mr. Bush] is going for that 7 percent.”
The issue cuts across party lines, but already yesterday opponents in Congress were lining up.
Mr. Bush proposed allowing illegal aliens already in the United States and foreign residents to apply for legal work status here, as long as an employer has certified he would employ the person and no U.S. worker is readily available.
The president also proposed increasing the level of overall legal immigration, and though he didn’t specifically guarantee that the guest workers would get legal permanent residence, members of Congress said they expect the two will have to be tied together somehow.
But a Gallup poll from June found only 13 percent of Americans thought immigration should be increased, while 47 percent said it should be reduced and 37 percent said it should be kept at its present level.
Opposition has remained high for several years. A Zogby poll from 2002 found that 58 percent of Americans wanted to reduce immigration, 65 percent disagreed with amnesty and 68 percent felt the United States should deploy military troops to the border to curb illegal immigration.
Meanwhile, 60 percent of Americans believe present immigration levels are a “critical threat to the vital interests of the United States.” But when the poll asked the same question of government officials, business leaders and journalists, only 14 percent thought so.
When asked whether immigration levels should be kept the same, increased or reduced, 55 percent of Americans opted for a reduction, while 18 percent of the poll’s sample of “elites” thought so, according to an analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies.
Also, proposals that are seen as soft on illegal immigrants have come back to bite politicians before.
Just last year, California Gov. Gray Davis was hurt in his bid to stave off a recall when he signed a bill to let illegal immigrants obtain state driver’s licenses. The new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, pushed a repeal of that provision through the legislature.
An exit poll commissioned by the Federation for American Immigration Reform showed that 30 percent of California voters said they were somewhat or much more likely to vote against Mr. Davis because he signed the law. Only 8 percent of voters were somewhat or much more likely to support him because of it.
“How did Davis get it so wrong?” Mr. Camarota said. “The reason is, he and people like George Bush live in an echo chamber of elites, where the received wisdom on immigration is all the same.”
“But once you get out of the Beltway, or leave the offices of the Chamber of Commerce, the number of people in the U.S. who think it’s a good idea to give legal status to illegal aliens, or more generally to increase immigration, is very small,” Mr. Camarota said.
Still, guest-worker proponents say that if they get a chance to explain their plans, they can win over the public.
“The difference here is some people see this being portrayed by the Pat Buchanans of the world as launching a new wave of immigration, whereas we see it more as acknowledging the wave that has already happened,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, who is sponsoring one of the leading guest-worker proposals pending in Congress.
His proposal, which he is sponsoring along with two fellow Arizona Republicans — Sen. John McCain and Rep. Jim Kolbe — would allow an illegal alien to pay a fine and apply for legal work status and after completing two terms, they could apply for permanent legal residence.
Mr. Flake pointed to a poll of Arizona voters that found after Mr. Flake’s proposal was explained, it garnered 59 percent support. The poll was conducted by KAET-TV and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
And Don Stewart, spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who has his own guest-worker program pending in the Senate, said he expects the public perception to change now that the president has put something specific on the table.
“People have been polling in the abstract, now they’re polling on something specific, and the numbers will change accordingly,” Mr. Stewart said. Mr. Bush’s guest-worker proposal closely tracks the bill Mr. Cornyn is sponsoring in the Senate.
Even proponents like Mr. Kolbe said they don’t expect to pass their bill this year.
“It’s probably likely we will not see legislative action before 2005,” he said.
Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican and an opponent of the proposals, said sufficient opposition exists among rank-and-file Republicans on key committees that Mr. Bush would have to make a serious effort to convince Congress to act.
“I think it’ll take a push from leadership, and it just depends on whether the president can put enough leverage on the speaker and on [House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay,” Mr. King said.
Mr. King said whatever happens, he and other Republicans will fight it.
“I can tell you it will be a gloves-off fight all the way through,” he said.
Mr. DeLay last night said he supports a guest-worker program to grow the economy and enhance security, but said he remains “skeptical that [Mr. Bushs plan] constitutes sound public policy.”
“I applaud President Bush for his leadership and courage in addressing this complex and difficult issue, but I have heartfelt concerns about allowing illegal immigrants into a U.S. guest-worker program because it seems to reward illegal behavior,” he said.