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On immigration: A pathway to citizenship, with conditions

Jack Citrin, emeritus professor of political science | June 24, 2013

As Congress grapples with a push for the first major immigration reform in more than a quarter century, attention has understandably focused on what Americans think about this important issue.

Too often, however, surveys that take the public’s pulse present a simple take-it-or-leave-it option: Do you support a path to citizenship for the 11 million people living in the United States without permission? In reality, opinion is more nuanced.

To gauge attitudes in California — home to more immigrants, both legal and illegal, than any other state — UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies (IGS) surveyed more than 3,100 registered voters in an Internet poll conducted in early May. Our sample is broadly representative of California’s registered voters, who are more likely to be white and native born, older and more educated than the state’s overall population.

We asked Californians not merely about a pathway to citizenship for all illegal immigrants, but about a variety of alternatives, such as citizenship programs only for some illegal immigrants, residency programs that don’t lead to citizenship, a policy of returning illegal immigrants to their country of origin, or the status quo. We also asked people what should happen to illegal immigrants who don’t meet the criteria for staying here legally.

When presented with just two options — the status quo or a pathway to citizenship for all of the 11 million illegal immigrants who can pass a background check — legalization and a path to citizenship won the support of 58 percent of respondents, while 42 percent preferred the status quo.

When the question included other options, such as a program that would offer legal residency without citizenship, majority support for a pathway to citizenship generally held firm. Furthermore, less than 20 percent of respondents supported “making every effort to return all illegal immigrants to their home countries.”

Data recently released by the federal government indicate that in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, an estimated 455,000 people were deported, a majority of whom had been convicted of a criminal offense and presumably would not have passed the background check required for legalization.

When the Dream Act was included as an option, the percentage of respondents favoring the status quo was sliced in half, and support for a path to citizenship for all illegal immigrants dropped from 58 to 39 percent, with an additional 39 percent favoring the reform for just the Dreamers.

Even Republicans, who were generally more skeptical than Democrats about a path to citizenship, were often drawn to a program limited to Dreamers. Of GOP respondents, 45 percent backed that idea, with an additional 18 percent favoring a path to citizenship for anyone who can pass a background check.

So Californians are generally supportive of a pathway to citizenship — and overwhelmingly so for those who were brought into the country as children and might be covered under the Dream Act.

But substantial majorities in both parties also said it was “extremely important” that illegal immigrants offered a pathway to citizenship be able to pass an English test and demonstrate a history of steady work. Californians prefer to include in the country those who contribute to the economy and who “fit in.” Furthermore, while only a small minority favored an effort to deport all illegal immigrants, there was a bipartisan majority saying it was important that illegal immigrants who do not meet the criteria for the path to citizenship be returned to their home countries.

A final point: We solicited voters’ expectations about the consequences of immigration reform. If millions of people here now are offered a path to citizenship, will illegal immigration increase or decrease? Will the economy expand or shrink? Will our sense of a common American identity flourish or wither?

On balance, Californians expect an increase in illegal immigration and crime, but on the other hand they expect the economy to be strengthened and, interestingly, they expect the country’s sense of a common identity to increase as illegal immigrants become more openly integrated into American society.

Those views do not appear to be set in stone, however. Critics of reform often note that the last major immigration reform, in 1986, failed to stem the influx of illegal immigrants, and we wanted to measure how effective that argument against reform might be. So, for about half the respondents, we prefaced this final set of questions by noting that since the last major reform, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has increased from 3 million to 11 million.

What was the result of telling respondents about the historical experience? Both Democrats and Republicans across the board grew more pessimistic about the likely outcome of the reform push.

California’s enormous size — 1 out of every 8 Americans lives here and its congressional delegation contains an extraordinary 55 members — means that the state’s collective view almost always has relevance for the nation’s politics. In the case of immigration reform, California already has made a difference in shaping the legislation now before Congress: Two interest groups with a distinctively California flavor — high-tech and agriculture — successfully pushed for provisions in the bill that would make it easier to obtain visas to bring in and keep foreign workers.

But there are two subtler ways in which the opinions reflected in this poll could make a difference nationally. First, advocates of a path to legalization of illegal immigrants should take heart that a steady majority supports that idea, even when weaker alternatives are proposed, and that among Republicans, a plurality backs the notion that Dreamers deserve a shot at becoming citizens.

On the other hand, reformers should take heed that even in strongly Democratic California, a large majority supports border security, electronic verification, and the deportation of illegal immigrants who fail to meet the conditions for a pathway program. Such reservations in a pro-immigration state probably will be echoed elsewhere in the nation.

The usual impact of public opinion on policy is to constrain rather than direct. Still, as Washington tries to bargain toward reform, the views of Californians, a mixture of firmness and nuance, may be pointing the way.

This post was co-authored with doctoral student Morris Levy. This article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, and is re-posted with permission. To see the full results of the survey, go to the Institute of Governmental Studies website.

Comments to “On immigration: A pathway to citizenship, with conditions

  1. Everybody in favor of a pathway to citizenship for people in the United States illegally need to read and study history and the U.S. Constitution. Ask the Indians if it was an invasion and takeover of their Nations when Europeans started moving into what is now the United States. I believe that anybody who gives even a little honest thought to this will agree that the Europeans invaded and conquered the Indians, and that the Indians lost much of their way of life and heritage. How many Americans really want to lose our Nation to people who have invaded our country? I don’t.
    Now the United States has millions of people in the country illegally and wanting all the rights of citizenship, even though the first thing they did was violate our laws by being in the United States illegally. That is an invasion. The U.S. Constitution, Article IV, Section 4, mandates that: “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against invasion; * * *.” Congress, the President, Federal Judges, and other Federal employees are forbidden from “paving a pathway to citizenship” for anybody invading the United States. The officials are instead required to protect all of the States from the invasion. Quit encouraging officials to violate the U.S. Constitution and their oaths of office. Additionally, changing laws to pave a pathway to citizenship for people already in the United States illegally would be an ex post facto law (retroactive law), but such laws are unconstitutional under Article I, Sections 9[3] and 10[1] of the United States Constitution. Unconstitutional “laws” are never valid laws. If laws could be changed to give a pathway to citizenship for those already in the United States illegally, wouldn’t such a law also pave a pathway to citizenship for everybody who comes into the United States illegally after the immigration laws are changed? If we are going to do that, why have any immigration laws or citizenship, instead of just opening our borders to all people for all reasons, including to commit terrorism, drug trafficking, human smuggling, etcetera?
    I suggest that the Fourteenth Amendment be amended so that being born on U.S. soil is no longer a basis to have citizenship. Instead, citizenship should be based on being born to at least one biological parent who is a U.S. citizen for at least one year prior to the birth so pregnancies are planned for birth after gaining citizenship, or by strict compliance with reformed immigration laws that prohibit anybody from being granted citizenship if they are ever in the United States illegally after a set date or are ever convicted of a felony prior to having valid citizenship. Additionally, the term “natural born Citizen”, from Article II, Section 1[5] of the U.S. Constitution, needs to be defined. I suggest it means anybody who is a United States citizen at birth, whether with one biological parent or both biological parents being citizens at the time of the birth.
    So how should we deal with people in the United States illegally who want citizenship? The answer is easy. They need to leave the United States and return legally; abide by our laws; be productive in life; and seek citizenship by honest means, instead of by invasion. Additionally, all government officials, city, county, State, and Federal, need to stop encouraging more illegal immigration; or the officials should face
    charges of treason. Nobody, not even those illegally in the United States should be subjected to abuse, slavery, bullying, or inhuman treatment. However, those in the United States illegally should also not be allowed to own any real estate in the United States, not have any license issued by any branch or level of government in the United States, not be allowed to attend our schools, not be granted any financial assistance, not be allowed to vote, not be allowed to file lawsuits in our courts, not be given permission to work in the United States, and not be exempt from any legal liability citizens and others legally in the United States face. For those people who are not U.S. citizens, but they want to be in the United States to work, get an education, get medical help, vacation, or any other valid reason to be here, the immigration laws probably need revisions to make it easier to gain legal access for valid reasons to be in the United States.
    I am not opposed to people from other countries coming to the United States, if they have a valid reason and they abide by our laws instead of violating our laws and seeking special privileges that even citizens are not getting, or they try to change our laws to suit the desires of those in our country illegally. Ask yourself, if people broke into your house, even if you had “No Trespassing” signs posted, would you call the police to get them arrested and removed, or would you consider it okay for the intruders to help themselves to whatever you had in the house while the police encouraged them to take all that they wanted? Surely all or nearly all people would object to such an intrusion and theft, so why do they encourage laws be changed to encourage people to intrude into our country illegally? Start asking yourselves and your elected officials if you and/or they would be in favor of changing the laws so that people can have a pathway to immunity from criminal or civil liability for invading the homes of citizens and be rewarded for doing so, or would you and the officials stand up against such invasion?

  2. I think the most insightful paragraphs were…” we prefaced this final set of questions by noting that since the last major reform, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has increased from 3 million to 11 million.

    “What was the result of telling respondents about the historical experience? Both Democrats and Republicans across the board grew more pessimistic about the likely outcome of the reform push.”

    The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has predicted illegal immigration to continue at 75% level, even with the mythical promise of improved border enforcement. Guaranteed Congress will return in just a matter of years with Amnesty 3.0.

    And California will surpass 50 million and be well on its way toward 75 million.

  3. Nuance? How about asking:
    Has mass illegal immigration lowered or raised energy use and consumption in California?
    Has mass illegal immigration helped improve or contributed to the decline of our public schools?
    Has mass illegal immigration accelerated the pace of paving over the state or has it increased access to open space?

    Mass immigration – both legal and illegal – is driving the population growth in the state by roughly half a million a year. This is a disgraceful legacy to leave our children.

  4. I appreciate the attempt at more nuanced polling questions. The fact remains that the citizens of California, as well as the country, are being largely denied the opportunity to hear a genuine debate on illegal immigration by a news media that has been and remains an advocate for it. Just as the more extensive questioning you did leads to more accurate understanding of sentiments, letting the citizenry actually hear real arguments and proposals from various sides to choose between would produce a more honest assessment of what they really support. And that is precisely why they aren’t hearing such a debate, as the elites fear their immigration agenda would lose out.

  5. With SCOTUS gutting the Voting Rights Act today, we are definitely into the decline and fall stage of American Democracy.

    And we still haven’t ratified the ERA. It is now a fact that without equal rights for women, every civil and human right is in jeopardy once again.

    All the civil rights we fought for and achieved in the 60s and 70s are now subject to being overthrown by SCOTUS and/or the House of Representatives.

  6. The Constitution was written before food stamps, WIC (and 13 other food giveaway programs), the many versions of subsidized housing, SSI, TANF, Medicaid, free emergency room visits, free cell phones, etc….. The people coming here before these programs (80+ programs) had to support themselves.

    We already have over 40 million citizens getting a free ride on the backs of those who actually have to pay income taxes. If 11 million illegal aliens become legal most of them and their families will be added to the free ride. That is a huge part of the problem. The pathway to citizenship for the illegals also a pathway to subsidized housing, food stamps, WIC, Medicaid, SSI, etc.? And don’t tell me they will be paying income taxes, they have so many kids they will be getting EITC and Child Tax Credits and will get back a lot more than they pay in. The American taxpayers do not need more burdens.

    I know somebody who is here, in their 70’s, on a green card. Their relative had to sign an Affidavit of Support for them to come here. They are still not a citizen but they are in subsidized housing (paying $25 of the $865 monthly rent), on food stamps, Medicaid and has a free cell phone with 250 free minutes a month. The Affidavit of Support means NOTHING. They will be a citizen soon.

    I have calculated the value of their “benefits” at just under $30,000 per year – they never worked a day in this country and never contributed a cent in taxes to this country. Where is the fairness? Will there ever be an advocate for the taxpayers? Ever?

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