Public Backs Bush on Immigration?

According to Robert Novak:

New national polling data show, to the surprise of many politicians, that the immigration issue is one of the very rare areas where President Bush is gaining rather than losing strength.

The conventional wisdom has been that Bush's guest worker proposal runs sharply against mainstream Republican opinion and contributes to the president's loss of party support. However, polls show Republican opinion on the issue is split, as are the Democrats, with a national majority actually backing Bush (while he continues to drop in nearly every other category).

Some Republican members of Congress have reported back from Easter recess to say their constituents are less outraged by leaky borders than the possible loss of immigrant workers, some from their own households.

Much depends upon the wording of the surveys, of course. As the Washington Post reported at the end of March, "Polls indicate about 60 percent of Americans oppose guest-worker programs that would offer illegal immigrants an avenue to lawful work status…." That sure sounds like the Bush plan. And throwing in the word "amnesty" makes a big difference, especially to Republicans. Zogby finds that "Among Republicans, just 13% said they favor amnesty, while 76% said they oppose such an offer."

That's not to say that the polls Novak has in mind (perhaps this one, for example) are entirely without merit. The public, and the parties, genuinely does seem to be schizophrenic on this issue. And whatever the polls say, what makes immigration a real flashpoint is that there are not just strong ideological commitments on both sides, but vested economic interests at stake as well — chiefly on the side of the pro-amnesty / guest workers people, but the economic case for restrictionism has lately been picking up notice in the mainstream and left-wing press from the likes of Robert Samuelson and Paul Krugman. Compare all this to the early debate over the Iraq War, where the economics overwhelmingly favored one side — the side that was going to dispense taxpayer dollars to favored contractors for supplying the war and rebuilding Iraq.

There are going to be serious near-term costs — political, cultural, and economic — to whichever side loses the immigration fight. That promises to make immigration policy much more bitter and divisive than most other hot-button issues of the past few years. They have costs too, of course, but while wars and judicial appointments and changes to entitlements take time — sometimes decades — before their impact on daily life is felt, the immigration fight is going to reshape the losers' lives very quickly. Some of the schizophrenic poll numbers may indicate Americans' ambivalence about what might happen either way, but in any case the numbers probably fail to communicate just how much dissension the fight, and its outcome, will stir up.

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