Americans Value Both Aspects of Immigration Reform

by Lydia Saad

Strengthening the border and dealing with illegals already here both have appeal

PRINCETON, NJ -- As President Obama and Congress consider whether and how to go forward with comprehensive immigration reform in an election year, a new USA Today/Gallup poll finds Americans placing about equal importance on the two sides of the immigration-policy coin.

Roughly 4 in 10 Americans rate "controlling U.S. borders to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S." as extremely important for the government to deal with this year. Nearly as many, 36%, say "developing a plan to deal with the large number of illegal immigrants who are already living in the U.S." is extremely important. Altogether, two-thirds say each goal is either extremely or very important.

Importance of Immigration Policy Goals This Year: Controlling U.S. Borders, Dealing With Illegal Immigrants Already Here

Additionally, when asked to say which of the two goals the U.S. government should have as its main focus, Americans are generally divided, although the slight edge goes to halting the flow of illegal immigrants.

The question did not ask about specific approaches that could be used to deal with immigrants now in the U.S., and thus, in respondents' minds it could involve anything ranging from full amnesty to deportation, or any combination thereof. However, the preferences by party and ideology show that Democrats and liberals generally favor first dealing with immigrants who are already here, whereas Republicans and conservatives favor border control.

Immigration Policy Priority: Should the U.S. Government Focus Mainly on Halting the Flow of Illegal Immigrants Into the U.S. or Dealing With Immigrants Who Are in the U.S. Illegally?

These views are fairly uniform by region of the country, with those in the West neither more nor less likely than those in other regions to consider each aspect of immigration reform extremely important, or to name it as a priority. (See the tables on page 2 for the full results by region.)

Sympathy Has Its Limits

By 64% to 34%, more Americans say they are sympathetic than unsympathetic toward illegal immigrants in the United States. Still, Americans are more likely to be "very concerned" about the potential detriment to the country resulting from illegal immigrants' presence in the U.S. than they are about the potential harm that stricter new immigration laws would do to illegal immigrants themselves, or to Hispanics, generally.

Worry About Effects of Illegal Immigrants and Anti-Illegal Immigration Laws

Residents of the West and, to a lesser degree, the South, are more pro-immigrant in their reactions to the various potential consequences of illegal immigration and immigration reform than are those in the East and Midwest. The former are less likely to be concerned about illegal immigrants' having a negative impact on U.S. institutions or the economy, and they are more likely to be concerned that stricter laws would negatively affect illegal residents and Hispanics, generally.

Bottom Line

Recent Gallup polling found nearly as many Americans rating immigration reform as an important national priority as said this about financial reform for Wall Street. That aligns with the wishes of some Senate Democrats who are reportedly pressing for quick action on comprehensive immigration reform.

However, public opinion on the issue might not align as well with the policies these Democrats have in mind. While Americans seem to favor addressing both parts of the problem, the slight majority believe controlling the border to prevent further illegal immigration ought to be the priority -- rather than developing policies to deal with immigrants already here. (Indeed, Gallup recently found more public support than opposition for Arizona's tough new law directed at illegal immigrants.) Furthermore, Americans express more concern about the risks illegal immigration poses to the U.S. than about the potential problems that could ensue from stiffer immigration laws.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,049 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 1-2, 2010, as part of Gallup Daily tracking. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones (for respondents with a landline telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

How Sympathetic Are You Toward Illegal Immigrants in the United States?

Among U.S. Adults, and by Region: How Concerned Are You That Illegal Immigrants Might Be Putting an Unfair Burden on U.S. Schools, Hospitals, and Government Services?

Among U.S. Adults, and by Region: How Concerned Are You That Illegal Immigrants Making Low Wages Might Make U.S. Employers Less Willing to Pay American Workers a Decent Wage?

Among U.S. Adults, and by Region: How Concerned Are You That Allowing Illegal Immigrants to Stay in the U.S. Might Be Encouraging Others to Move Here Illegally?

Among U.S. Adults, and by Region: If Stricter New Immigration Laws Are Passed, How Concerned Would You Be That Hispanics Living in the U.S. Would Be Harrassed by Authorities Accusing Them of Being Illegal Immigrants?

Among U.S. Adults, and by Region: If Stricter New Immigration Laws Are Passed, How Concerned Would You Be That Illegal Immigrants and Their Families Who Have Lived in the U.S. Peacefully and Productively for Many Years Would Be Forced to Leave the Country?

Among U.S. Adults, and by Region: If Stricter New Immigration Laws Are Passed, How Concerned Would You Be That Taking Strict Measures Against Illegal Immigrants Would Go Against the American Tradition of Welcoming Those Who Come to the U.S. to Find a Better Life?

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