April 3, 2013

Americans Divided over Immigration Reform

By Bruce Stokes, Director of Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center

Special to CNN

For those Indians, Chinese and others with advanced degrees who have been waiting years for a U.S. employment-based visa, the prospect of American immigration reform this year may yet prove a siren call. The fact is that despite the political rhetoric emanating from Washington, and press reports of an immigration deal shaping up in the U.S. Senate, U.S. immigration reform is not a priority for many Americans – especially some in the Republican Party.

“The time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” said U.S. President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address in February. Many Republican Congressional leaders now see the need for liberalizing visa requirements, after once opposing such measures, as a self-preservation move for their party, which is losing ground among Hispanics and Asian Americans. Organized labor and the business community have apparently struck a deal on work permits. And the public would like to see change in principle. The trouble is there is just no consensus on the details, which are devilishly complicated.

Uncle Sam’s immigration queue suggests change is long overdue. The family reunification visa waiting list for unmarried Mexican-born sons and daughters of U.S. citizens is now nearly 20 years long, while for Indians and Chinese it is seven years. For the Indian-born brothers and sisters of adult U.S. citizens it is 12 years. The employment-based visa waiting list for Chinese skilled workers and professionals is six years. Moreover, there are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, many if not most of whom would like visas and a path to citizenship.

But despite the political impetus behind immigration reform, such change still faces an uphill fight with the American public. Americans are much more interested in seeing Washington strengthen the economy and cut the budget deficit. And this relative disinterest may accord added leverage to many Republicans who remain troubled by the cultural implications of greater immigration and do not support an easier path to citizenship.

Immigration reform is now on the front burner in Washington because in the 2012 election 10 percent of American voters were Hispanics and 71 percent of them voted for Obama. Moreover, Asian Americans, who account for only 3 percent of the electorate but are the most rapidly growing minority group, gave 73 percent of their votes to the Democratic standard bearer. With their party drawing an overwhelming share of its support from whites in 2012, while nearly half of the Democratic Party is comprised of ethnic minorities, Republican candidates need to attract immigrant voters.

Seven-in-ten Americans say there should be a way for people in the United States illegally to remain in this country if they meet certain requirements, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. But only 43 percent think they should be allowed to apply for citizenship.

And immigration reform is anyway not a top priority for most Americans, according to  another Pew Research Center survey. A little over half think the federal budget crisis is the most essential issue for the president and Congress to act on in 2013. Just 16 percent accord that priority to immigration reform.

The same survey found that while 70 percent of the public say that it is essential to pass a major deficit reduction bill this year, only half of the public believes it is crucial to enact major immigration legislation this year.

Moreover, Americans disagree on the details of what should be contained in that legislation. Just a quarter say the priority should be given to creating a way for illegal immigrants already in the country to become citizens if they meet certain requirements, while almost half think equal weight should be given to better border security and stronger enforcement of immigration laws.

And just 11 percent of Republicans see a path to citizenship as the most important issue, while 43 percent say it’s tighter border security. Moreover, Pew Research Center polling going back to 1992 shows that roughly eight-in-ten Republicans have consistently held the belief that the United States should impose more restrictions and controls on the number of people coming into the country.

In part, this reflects Republicans’ discomfort with immigrants: 58 percent think the growing number of newcomers threaten American values according to a recent Pew Research survey. By comparison, 61 percent of Democrats see no such threat. Notably, this partisan gap in perception has grown over the last decade.

One matter where Republicans and Democrats may find common ground is on the issue of visas for highly skilled immigrants, a small proportion of all annual visas. Strong majorities of both Republicans (67 percent) and Democrats (79 percent) back making it easier for legal immigrants who have advanced skills in technology and science to come to America, according to a Gallup survey released in January.

But even that issue may be less controversial in theory than it is in practice. Among the top ten users of the H-1B visa for skilled workers, which account for nearly half of all such visas issued, only 2.9 of their H-1B recipients go on to get a green card and contribute to the U.S. economy in the long run.

The immigration debate in Washington is likely to heat up in the weeks ahead. Indians, Chinese and others either hoping to migrate to America (even those with advanced skills) or those with loved ones living illegally and precariously within the United States should realize that despite largely supportive rhetoric emanating from both Congress and the White House, the U.S. public remains divided over immigration reform.