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The Politics of Immigration, and the (Limited) Case for New Optimism: Perspectives from a Political Pollster
October 2009

The Politics of Immigration, and the (Limited) Case for New Optimism: Perspectives from a Political Pollster

Recent developments in the United States (including the 2008 elections and shifts in organized labor’s stance on immigration) have created new openings for comprehensive immigration reform, possibly including a path to legal residence and citizenship for illegal immigrants. But the author argues that the extent of this opening may be overstated by some advocates. This is partly because public opinion polls, which deal mainly in the aggregate and obscure the influence of vocal minorities and electoral dynamics, do not accurately capture either the intensity or effectiveness of anti-immigrant sentiments at the margins.

One mistake is the belief among some reform advocates that politicians have misread their publics and misjudged the strength of public anger over immigration (“the misperception of opposition”). In fact, the opposition to immigration reform is real, intense, and politically persistent. It taps into broader frustrations with modern politics and society in many countries, particularly the perceived shortcomings of public services relative to tax burdens and the feeling that many aspects of life in a globalized state are increasingly “out of control.”

Public opinion polls on this issue (as on others), while useful in many ways, tend to overlook important dynamics that are crucial in the political process, such as intensity of opinions, attitudes among small but pivotal audiences, the interplay with other issues, and the power of particular issues in electoral campaigns. Yet all of these are important factors in the political processes that shape immigration policy, and they tend to tilt against comprehensive immigration reform. While there are new openings for immigration reform and liberalization, they come more from changes in demographics, coalitions, elections, and the opportunity for messages that address voters’ frustrations, and less from the favorable nature of public opinion regarding immigration. The prospects for immigration reform and liberalization may be improving, but only marginally. It will still take tremendous skill and effort to achieve comprehensive reform.

Table of Contents 

I. Introduction

II. The Evidence from Public Opinion Polls

III. “The Misperception of Opposition”: Reasons for Caution

IV. Conclusion: How to Improve the Politics of Immigration Reform