Bush's Speech on Immigration Closely Follows Public Opinion

by Frank Newport

Most of the president's recommendations supported by recent polling

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- President Bush's primetime immigration speech on Monday night was -- intentionally or not -- closely calibrated with what public opinion research shows is the basic structure of the public's views on the issue on immigration. Polling shows that Americans broadly favor four of the basic elements included in Bush's immigration plan: an increase in border security, an increase in personnel manning the border, a program that would allow immigrants to become citizens if they meet a number of specific requirements, and a plan to enforce penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants. When asked to choose between border control and dealing with the illegal immigrants already here, the public tilts towards giving a higher priority to increased border security. All of these points were reflected in the president's speech, suggesting that there will be little controversy concerning his police recommendations from the public's perspective.

Americans Want "All of the Above"

The president admitted in his speech that "… we do not yet have full control of the border"; a strong reflection of an April 2006 Gallup Poll result in which 81% of Americans agreed that illegal immigration to the United States is out of control.

The president's speech asserted that the reform of the United States' immigration system is of great importance and that new legislation needs to be enacted to deal with the issue.

This assumption that the government can implement new policies which will help reform the immigration situation is also right in line with the views of the American population; 6 in 10 agree if the U.S. government takes the rights steps, it could effectively control illegal immigration into the United States.

Which comes closer to your view -- [ROTATED: if the U.S. government took the right steps, it could effectively control illegal immigration to the U.S., (or) no matter what the U.S. government does, it will not be able to control the number of illegal immigrants who are able to get into the U.S.]?


Could control
illegal
immigration

Will not be
able to control
illegal
immigration



No
opinion

%

%

%

2006 May 5-7

62

34

4

But which new policies should be enacted?

Americans' views on what to do about illegal immigration can be classified as a basic desire for "all of the above." In general, the public approves of a number different approaches to fix it, most of which Bush mentioned on Monday night as part of his "comprehensive immigration reform."

Two questions from the May 5-7, 2006, USA Today/Gallup poll asked Americans to rate the importance of the two major approaches to immigration which have been most widely discussed:

How important is it to you that the government takes steps this year to deal with each of the following -- extremely important, very important, moderately important, or not that important? How about -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

A. Controlling U.S. borders to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S.

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2006 May 5-7

44

30

17

7

1

2006 Apr 7-9

43

36

17

4

1

B. Developing a plan to deal with the large number of illegal immigrants who are already living in the U.S.

Extremely
important

Very
important

Moderately
important

Not that
important

No
opinion

%

%

%

%

%

2006 May 5-7

38

33

20

8

1

2006 Apr 7-9

34

41

20

5

*

* Less than 0.5%

Slightly more Americans consider halting the flow of illegal immigrants at the border to be extremely important, even more than developing a plan to deal with the large numbers of illegal immigrants already living in the United States (44% vs. 38%). But it is clear that Americans believe that both of these approaches need to be addressed: 74% say it is extremely or very important to control U.S. borders, and 71% say it is important to deal with the existing illegal immigrants. President Bush addressed and endorsed both of these approaches in his speech.

When presented with a forced choice between these two approaches, a slight majority of the American public says that increasing border security is the more important of the two (52% vs. 43%):

If you had to choose, what should be the main focus of the U.S. government in dealing with the issue of illegal immigration -- [ROTATED: developing a plan for halting the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S., (or) developing a plan to deal with immigrants who are currently in the U.S illegally]?

Halting flow of
illegal
immigrants

Deal with
immigrants in
the U.S. illegally

No
opinion

%

%

%

2006 May 5-7

52

43

4

This tilt in priority toward border security was directly reflected in President Bush's Monday night speech. Just minutes into the speech, Bush said, "First, the United States must secure its borders," and then went on to discuss his new plans for deployment of National Guard troops and launching a new "technologically advanced border security initiative" involving high-tech fences, motion sensors, infrared cameras, and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Polling has also shown that Americans support the specific idea of increased manpower deployment at the U.S.-Mexican border. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll conducted in early April found that 80% of registered voters favor "increasing the number of federal agents patrolling the borders to stop illegal immigration" and that 55% favored using the U.S. military to "stop illegal immigrants at the border." Although the precise role that the National Guard may play in border security is not yet clear, the public in general endorses the concept that the government use more agents or troops of some kind to attempt to stop the flow of illegal immigration.

The president's speech also included his assertion that "we need to hold employers to account for the workers they hire." This, too, is right in line with American public opinion. Numerous polls conducted over the last several months confirm that Americans overwhelmingly endorse imposing fines and criminal charges against employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Path to Citizenship

Americans, in general, favor a program that would allow immigrants to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements over a period of time, and do not favor a program which would deport all illegal immigrants back to their home country:

Which comes closest to your view about what government policy should be toward illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States? Should the government -- [ROTATED: deport all illegal immigrants back to their home country, allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States in order to work, but only for a limited amount of time, or allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States and become U.S. citizens, but only if they meet certain requirements over a period of time]?


Deport
all

Remain in
the U.S. in
order to
work

Remain in
the U.S. and
become
citizen


No
opinion

%

%

%

%

2006 May 5-7

21

15

61

3

2006 Apr 7-9

18

17

63

2

Bush endorsed just this type of approach in his Monday night speech: "Some in this country argue that the solution is to depart every illegal immigrant -- and that any approach short of this amounts to amnesty." The president said he disagreed with this notion ("It is neither wise nor realistic to round up millions of people, many with deep roots in the United States, and send them across the border.") and went on to say, "I believe that illegal immigrants who have roots in our country and want to stay should have to pay a meaningful penalty for breaking the law, to pay their taxes, to learn English, and to work in a job for a number of years. People who meet these conditions should be able to apply for citizenship."

In fact, the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll tested three of these precise conditions as outlined in Bush's speech and found majority support for each:

Suppose the government does allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States legally and permanently if they meet certain requirements. For each of the following, please say whether it should or should not be a requirement. First, the immigrant -- [RANDOM ORDER]?

A. Must have lived in the United States for at least five years

Yes,
should

No,
should not

No
opinion

%

%

%

2006 May 5-7

74

24

2

2006 Apr 7-9 ^

67

30

3

^ Asked of a half sample

B. Must pay a fine for coming to the United States illegally

Yes,
should

No,
should not

No
opinion

%

%

%

2006 May 5-7

57

40

3

2006 Apr 7-9 ^

64

34

1

^ Asked of a half sample

C. Must learn to speak English

Yes,
should

No,
should not

No
opinion

%

%

%

2006 May 5-7

89

10

*

2006 Apr 7-9 ^

85

14

1

* Less than 0.5%

^ Asked of a half sample

With the similarity between what the polling shows are the public's views on illegal immigration and what the president discussed in his Monday night speech, there would be every reason to expect that the public's reaction to the speech would be positive. Indeed, an overnight instant reaction poll conducted by CNN after the speech showed just that, with 79% of speech watchers contacted after the speech saying that they had a positive reaction.

The only element of the president's speech that might be in significant discord with American public opinion is the fact that he was giving immigration such high priority. Although the president's speech was aimed at nudging members of Congress to take action on immigration -- and perhaps as an attempt to appease conservative critics of the nation's illegal immigration policies -- as far as the broad American public is concerned, the prime time speech might better have been focused on the war in Iraq, the economy, or high gas prices. These are the issues that are most frequently named as the most important problems facing the country today.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,013 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 5-7, 2006. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. 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.
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