Sometimes it is useful to get out of the echo chamber of arguments on the internet among partisans and look at the data. And the data we have from the primary exit polling so far is telling us that, among voters in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries (both won by Donald Trump), some form of ‘amnesty’ for illegal aliens is a majority position.
One reason why the word “amnesty” is such an unhelpful one in the immigration debate is that different people use it to mean different things – some have said “amnesty” means only that people who broke the law get to stay here with little or no meaningful penalty (this has tended to be the way Marco Rubio uses it, to contrast to requiring various payments and other consequences), while others take the harder meaning: that it’s “amnesty” to ever allow people to stay here legally if they entered illegally, at least unless they first go back to their country of origin and re-apply from scratch through the regular legal process. Still others view it as “amnesty” only if people are able to get citizenship.
Moreover, opinions on these issues tend to vary a lot by wording, by the options offered, and to some extent as well by when the poll is taken: the more people feel like government is doing nothing to enforce the border or to impose real conditions on some sort of path to legalization, the more likely they are to say “deport ’em all.” And people are more sympathetic to “enforce the law, let them self-deport” than to rounding people up en masse. Etc.
All that said, if you offer people a straight-up referendum on whether illegal immigrants should be given any chance to stay or not, without specifying the conditions, the media and a lot of the tenor of conversation around conservative talk radio, Twitter and the internet would have you believe that “any amnesty of any kind, ever” is a very unpopular position in the GOP and perhaps with the public at large. The fact that Trump has won two of the first three primaries, and that Trump plus Cruz (who agree on few other things besides hard-line rhetoric on immigration, their more nuanced prior records aside) equals a majority in each of the first three states, would seem to support that.
But as I noted this morning, it’s not so. And it’s worth teasing that out here in a post of its own to focus on that.
Here’s how the question was reported in New Hampshire – I don’t have the specific wording:
Feelings on undocumented immigrants
Offered a chance to apply for legal status (56% of voters)
Deported to the country they came from (41%)
Trump won 50-19-8 over Cruz-Rubio with the “deport ’em all” voters, tied Kasich 23-23 with Rubio at 14, Jeb at 13, Christie 9 and Cruz 7 with the rest.
In South Carolina:
Most illegal immigrants working in U.S. should be
Offered a chance to apply for legal status 53% of voters
Deported 44% of voters
Again, Trump dominated the “deport ’em all” voters 47-24-15 over Cruz-Rubio, while Rubio won 31-22-18 over Trump-Cruz with the majority who took the opposite view.
We don’t have polling on this question from the Iowa Caucus entrance poll, except that given three other choices (Economy/Jobs, Government Spending, and Terrorism), 13% of voters said immigration was the #1 issue, and those broke Trump 44, Cruz 34, Rubio 10. In New Hampshire, the same questions were asked and 15% picked immigration; they broke Trump 52/Cruz 21/Rubio 8. Same in South Carolina: 10% picked immigration and they went Trump 52/Cruz 25/Rubio 11.
Support in the mid-40s for deporting all illegal immigrants is actually pretty high, even in a GOP primary, and unsurprisingly correlates closely with Trump support. And the support for a specific legalization proposal might well drop a lot lower, especially if the conditions are too weak and if mass deportation does not seem like the only alternative on offer. So none of this should suggest it is safe or easy for Republican politicians to ignore a substantial minority of Republican voters entirely.
But it would be hard to find better conditions for polling a majority in favor of “no amnesty of any kind, ever” than on the very day when the people being polled are voting in a partisan primary won by Donald Trump. Yet even then, you can’t do it. It is therefore vital for anyone trying to talk sensibly and realistically about the politics of immigration to realize that a rejection of a path to legalization on principle is a minority position even among the small, focused universe of voters in Republican presidential primaries.