Thursday, December 6, 2007

Voters Split on Illegal Immigration

Today's Los Angeles Times poll finds a majority of Americans favoring a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, although the public evinces a significant degree of restrictionist sentiment:

One-third of Americans want to deny social services, including public schooling and emergency room healthcare, to illegal immigrants, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.

Still, in a sign of ambivalence among voters about the emotionally charged issue, a strong bipartisan majority -- 60% -- favors allowing illegal immigrants who have not committed crimes to become citizens if they pay fines, learn English and meet other requirements.

Those crosscurrents create treacherous political waters for the major presidential candidates, many of whom have tended to avoid spotlighting the issue. But all have been forced to address the issue under repeated questioning at campaign events and candidate forums.

During Tuesday's radio debate among Democrats, the candidates were asked if citizens should turn in someone they know to be an illegal immigrant. Most said no. In other settings, however, several have been talking a tough line on issues such as denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

Some poll respondents, in follow-up interviews, expressed frustration that the candidates had not been more forthright in addressing immigration-related issues.

"I don't know what the answer is, but I don't think the candidates know what the answer is either," said Lodie Lambright, a retired state government worker in Rhode Island....

Asked to pick from a list of issues what was a top priority for presidential candidates, 15% said illegal immigration -- the fifth-most mentioned topic behind the Iraq war, the economy, protecting the country from terrorist attacks and healthcare. Asked how much of a problem illegal immigration is, 81% of respondents said they considered it important, including 27% who said it was one of the country's most pressing problems.

The poll also makes clear that respondents make a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. Asked if illegal immigrants had made a positive or negative contribution to their community, 36% said negative, whereas 21% said positive and 29% said the effect was not discernible.

When the same question was asked about legal immigrants, 12% said their contribution was negative, compared with 46% who said positive and 31% who saw no discernible effect.

"I don't mind immigration, but I do think they need to learn the English language and should become an American citizen," said Patricia Buckner, a Florida retiree....

The survey, which allowed respondents to name as many as five social services they would allow, showed a disparity: Far more people would allow access to emergency room care and schooling than other benefits, such as food stamps and driver's licenses.

About 46% of respondents said that immigrants should be able to get emergency medical treatment, and 40% said they should have access to public schools.

But 22% of those surveyed said that illegal immigrants should be able to get limited driver's licenses -- a question that has put the Democratic presidential candidates on the spot recently.

The finding underscores the political climate that caused many leading Democrats to oppose licenses for illegal immigrants when it was proposed in New York this year by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, who eventually backed down.

When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was asked about the proposal in a debate in late October, she praised Spitzer but stopped short of backing his plan. In a debate a few weeks later, she said she opposed driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.

Some of those resisting the idea of providing a range of services to illegal immigrants say that it drains resources from U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who are in need.

"It seems like our money in this country is going out faster than it is coming in, and [the spending is] helping the people who are not U.S. citizens," said Buckner, who described herself as a liberal Democrat.

Read the whole thing. Voters oppose tuition discounts for illegals at state colleges (not good for Mike Huckabee). Yet a strong majority supports some kind of comprehensive reform of the nation's failed immigration system. Voters expressed favorable opinions on variations of the Bush administration's immigration reform proposal (64% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans).

Finally, Democrats have no political advantage on immigration heading into 2008. Indeed, the parties are statistically tied on the question of which party would do a better job handling the issue. As progress on Iraq continues, the GOP candidates would do well to flesh out tough but principled immigration positions which combine border security with policy resolution to the legal crisis of illegal alien limbo status.