A shift to the right on immigration?

June 16, 2010

Justin Akers Chacón, co-author with Mike Davis of No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S-Mexico Border, examines public opinion on immigration.

WITH THE rapid deterioration of rational discourse on immigration and the lack of a prominent pro-immigrant alternative to counter this trend, does this mean public opinion has turned against legalization? A look beneath the surface of recent opinion polls reveals a more complex situation.

Supporters of SB 1070, the racial profiling law in Arizona, have trumpeted a Pew Research Center opinion poll showing that 59 percent of respondents nationally favor the Arizona law. Even higher numbers (67 percent) support police involvement in immigration enforcement, according to its findings.

This poll shows the degree to which public opinion has been battered by a suffocating barrage of anti-immigrant propaganda. There is no doubt that the emboldened anti-immigrant crowd is finding some success exploiting the recession-induced fear and instability wracking many households.

Many who felt inspired by the mass immigrant rights marches in 2006 and 2007 and accepted the mantra of "today we march, tomorrow we vote"--and then voted Democrat--are now dazed, by both the virulence of the right's actions and the timid response of Barack Obama and the Democrats.

Marching for full rights and equality for immigrants
Marching for full rights and equality for immigrants

Despite these changing dynamics, however, the evidence continues to show that most people support legalization. But it will take a new approach by the immigrant rights movement to realize this sentiment.

A 2007 Pew Research Poll showed that 63 percent of the population supported a "path to citizenship" for the nation's undocumented workforce--that is, some form of the "legalization" that the right wing rejects. By April 2009, another Pew poll found the same percentage still supporting legalization, although the majority was more polarized along partisan lines--73 percent in favor for self-identified Democrats versus 50 percent for Republicans.

A May 2009 CNN poll found that two out of three people supported legalization. A May 2010 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll found that while there is a substantial increase in support for enforcement measures, 80 percent of respondents nationally support "creating a program that would allow illegal immigrants already living in the United States for a number of years to stay here and apply to legally remain in this country permanently if they had a job and paid back taxes."

Looking into the details of the polls shows that Latinos and younger people disproportionately oppose SB 1070 and anti-immigrant laws in general.

A May Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed that 70 percent of Latinos nationally oppose Arizona's anti-immigrant law. An April/May Latino Decisions field poll found that 81 percent of Latinos in Arizona oppose it. This reveals the depth of understanding and experience among Latinos about how criminalization is linked to racism and discrimination against Latinos in general.

Young people are also disproportionately pro-immigrant rights. An April/May New York Times/CBS News poll:

found that Americans 45 and older were more likely than the young to say the Arizona law was "about right" (as opposed to "going too far" or "not far enough"). Boomers were also more likely to say that "no newcomers" should be allowed to enter the country while more young people favored a "welcome all" approach...For instance, while 41 percent of Americans aged 45 to 64 and 36 percent of older Americans said immigration levels should be decreased, only 24 percent of those younger than 45 said so.

Another poll conducted in California by the Los Angeles Times/USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, found that while the state's population is evenly split on the question of making public services available to undocumented immigrants, respondents aged 18 to 29 rejected the denial of public services by a 20-point margin, while voters over 65 supported it by 12 points. This younger group also overwhelming perceives undocumented immigrants as contributing positively to the state.

Drilling down beneath the support for SB 1070 is also revealing. According to an America's Voice poll conducted in June, 84 percent of national respondents who supported SB 1070 also support comprehensive immigration reform that includes legalization. Furthermore, wrote Frank Sharry, founder of America's Voice:

Support for comprehensive immigration reform is overwhelming. Support for comprehensive reform jumps from 57 percent-18 percent support to a 78 percent-16 percent margin after respondents hear a description of the reform proposal [including legalization]. The support is broad-based, crosses party lines and stays consistent across the country, with especially high levels of support seen among Republicans (84 percent-12 percent support) and voters in border states (81 percent-13 percent support).

Opinion is similar in Arizona. According to the Latino Decisions poll:

While 67 percent of Arizona voters express support for SB1070, a whopping 77 percent also support federal reform that includes both enforcement and a path to citizenship...

Asking about support for SB1070 without also asking about comprehensive immigration reform belies what public opinion research has repeatedly shown: that a majority of Americans--across regions and party lines--believe a federal overhaul of our broken immigration system that includes a path to legalization is the only way to end illegal immigration and move our country forward.

THREE SIGNIFICANT points emerge from these polls.

The first is that legalization is supported by a majority, as it has been for some time.

The second is that the bipartisan campaign to criminalize and punish undocumented workers has had an impact on public opinion, particularly around enforcement issues--proving that the immigrant rights discussion is vulnerable to the ubiquitous fear-mongering that substitutes for rational discourse.

The third is that younger people and Latinos--key demographic sectors of the population that will greatly affect the next generation of politics--are far more advanced in their understanding of the issue of immigration. They are more pro-immigrant than the rest of the population, and increasingly impatient with the conservative positions of the Democratic Party that has continuously taken their support for granted.

These polls also tell us that if there was a sustained, grassroots, pro-immigrant social movement that challenged the bipartisan campaign against immigrants, public opinion could be shifted in favor of legalization for all undocumented immigrant workers and their families without criminalization.

The movement taking shape today against Arizona's racist law--both inside the state and outside it--has the power to change the equation. But that will require not only confronting the bigotry of the reactionaries, but opposition from the Obama administration and the Democratic Party to taking a stand in favor of equality.

History has shown that opinion polls don't determine policy. Action does.

History also shows that civil rights victories have always been fought for and won through struggle, often against much greater opposition than immigrant rights activists face today. That's why it's important that supporters of immigrant rights are revisiting the strategies and tactics that defeated earlier forms of segregation. As a recent New York Times editorial commented:

Good immigration reform needs a good bill, and the administration and the president and Democratic leaders haven't yet offered or convincingly fought for one. The fight for reform is stalled. It could be simple acts of protest that ignite a fire. Half a century ago it was young people, at lunch counters and aboard buses across the South, who help galvanize the movement for civil rights, and to waken more powerful elders to injustice.

That's how public opinion will be changed--in struggle.

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