Americans Divided on Need for New Immigration Laws

by Joseph Carroll

View that immigration should be one of top government priorities is at high point in last year

GALLUP NEWS SERVICE

PRINCETON, NJ -- The debate between Congress and the president about legislation to deal with illegal immigrants living in the United States is believed to be a dead issue until after next year's presidential election. That may be fitting given that a new USA Today/Gallup poll finds the public divided over whether the government should pass new laws to deal with illegal immigration or just enforce current laws more strictly. In addition, a majority of the public says that dealing both with stopping the flow of illegal immigrants and addressing the status of illegal immigrants already in this country should be given the same priority, with the rest essentially split between giving priority to one or the other.

The issue of illegal immigration is significantly more important to Republicans than to Democrats, although the two party groups do not differ dramatically about whether the country needs new laws or just stricter enforcement of current laws. Republicans are four times more likely to say they have lost confidence in Bush rather than gained confidence as a result of his recent handling of illegal immigration (39% to 10%).

Illegal Immigration Legislation

The recently stalled immigration legislation may have died because of controversy over whether the government should make more of an effort to stop the flow of illegal immigrants entering the United States or make more of an effort to deal with illegal immigrants already living in the country.

According to the July 6-8, 2007, poll, 25% of Americans say dealing with illegal immigrants already in the country should be given the higher priority and 20% say halting the flow of illegal immigrants should be given the higher priority. But the majority, 53%, say both of these problems should be given the same priority.

The public is also divided about whether passing new laws or merely enforcing current laws more strictly would better deal with the illegal immigration issue. Fifty percent of Americans support the idea of passing new laws in addition to enforcing current laws more strictly, while 46% support enforcing current laws more strictly and not passing new laws.

Importance of Illegal Immigration Issue

The poll also asked Americans to specify how important the illegal immigration issue is to them. More than 6 in 10 say the issue is "extremely" or "very" important to them, including 35% who say it is "extremely" important. Twenty-six percent say the issue is somewhat important, and 11% say it is not too or not at all important.

Further evidence of the salience of the immigration issue comes from a recent Gallup Panel survey, conducted June 25-28, which finds a growing number of Americans naming immigration as one of the top priorities for the president and Congress to deal with at this time.

In that poll, 29% of Americans mentioned immigration as a top government priority. That pales in comparison with the 63% of Americans who say the Iraq war should be a top government priority, but immigration still ranks ahead of all other issues, including healthcare (23%) and the general state of the economy (10%). No other issue is mentioned by more than 7% of the American public.

In your view, what one or two issues should be the top priorities for the president and Congress to deal with at this time?

Jun 25-28, 2007

%

Situation in Iraq/War

63

Immigration/Illegal aliens

29

Poor healthcare/ hospitals; high cost of healthcare

23

Economy in general

10

Fuel/Oil prices/Lack of energy sources/The energy crisis

7

Education/Poor education/Access to education

6

Social Security

3

Poverty/Hunger/Homelessness

3

Federal budget deficit/Federal debt

3

Environment/Pollution

3

Terrorism

3

National security

3

Taxes

2

Unemployment/Jobs

2

Poor leadership/Corruption/Dissatisfaction with government/ Congress/ politicians/candidates

2

Foreign aid/Focus overseas

1

Medicare

1

International issues/ problems

1

War/Conflict in the Middle East

1

Judicial system/Courts/Laws

1

 

Other

3

No opinion

2

 

NOTE: Percentages add to more than 100% due to multiple responses.

The percentage of Americans saying immigration should be a top government priority has increased in each of the past two months -- from 14% in April to 24% in May to 29% in June -- and is now at its highest point across the history of the trend, which began in April 2006. At that time, as the issue gained widespread media and government attention, roughly one in five Americans mentioned immigration as a top government priority. While immigration remained one of the public's top concerns on this measure, the percentage mentioning it faded by the summer of 2006 and remained in the low double digits until the recent increases.

Republicans vs. Democrats on the Immigration Issue

Republicans (including independents who lean toward the Republican Party) show much greater concern about the issue of immigration than do Democrats (including Democratic-leaning independents):

  • Three in four Republicans say the issue of illegal immigration is extremely or very important to them, while only about half of Democrats share this point of view. Views that the issue is "extremely" important are nearly twice as high among Republicans (47%) as among Democrats (26%).

  • Forty-four percent of Republicans tell Gallup that immigration should be a top priority for the president and Congress to deal with at this time. This compares with only 18% of Democrats. The war in Iraq ranks as a higher priority among both groups.

When it comes to specific priorities and laws to deal with illegal immigration, the views of the two party groups differ little.

When asked whether halting the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States or dealing with those already in the country should be given a higher priority, or whether both should be given the same priority, more than half of Republicans (56%) and Democrats (51%) say both should have the same priority. Among those who do give a higher priority to one of the issues, Republicans prefer to halt the flow of illegal immigrants, while Democrats prefer to deal with illegal immigrants already here.

Republicans are evenly divided as to whether the government should enforce current immigration laws more strictly (48%) or pass new laws (49%). By comparison, Democrats have a slight preference for passing new laws to deal with illegal immigration (53%) rather than only enforcing current laws more strictly (43%).

The latest poll also asked Republicans about their confidence in Bush as a result of his recent involvement in the illegal immigration issue. The results show Republicans are nearly four times as likely to say they have lost confidence (39%) in Bush rather than gained confidence (10%) in him. Still, about half of Republicans say it has not affected their opinion either way.

Gallup also asked the "confidence" question about Bush's involvement in the "Scooter" Libby case. A comparison of the two questions finds that Republicans are more likely to say they have lost confidence in Bush over the immigration issue than over his decision to commute Libby's sentence. Just 16% of Republicans say they have lost confidence in Bush over the Libby matter, while 9% have gained confidence and 71% have not been affected either way.

Thus, it appears that Bush's handling of the immigration issue has been far more consequential than his actions in the Libby case, and the former has clearly has hurt his standing within his own party.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,014 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted July 6-8, 2007. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Results for the panel study are based on telephone interviews with 1,014 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted June 25-28, 2007. Respondents were drawn from Gallup's household panel, which was originally recruited through random selection methods. The final sample is weighted so it is representative of U.S. adults nationwide. 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.

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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