Americans Want a Path to Citizenship

Jens Schott Knudsen/Flickr

Sign in favor of immigration reform are on display outside Judson Memorial Church on West 4th Street in New York CIty on June 5th, 2010.

The most important takeaway from the latest Washington Post poll is its news on immigration. Among all adults, 57 percent support a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, one of the most contentious elements of the framework for comprehensive immigration reform. Forty percent are opposed, and of those, 24 percent have a “strong” opposition to the measure (on the other side, 31 percent are strongly supportive). Among registered voters, the spread is smaller but the result is the same; 54 percent support a path to citizenship while 43 percent are opposed.

Indeed, support for a path to citizenship holds strong across income groups (55 percent of voters with incomes under $100,000, and 65 percent of voters with incomes over, are supportive), gender (men and women are equally in favor), race (51 percent of whites and 69 percent of nonwhites are in favor), age (all but the oldest Americans support the position), and education.

It should be said there’s a chance this significant support is an artifact of Latino and higher-income voter enthusiasm for a path to citizenship, especially given the high support from groups that are most vulnerable to the increased competition for low wage jobs that would result from greater legal immigration: low-income Americans (57 percent support), workers with a high school degree or less (53 percent support), and native-born minorities—like African Americans—who fall disproportionately in those two categories (The Washington Post doesn’t provide fully disaggregated results). Even still, it’s a decisive advantage for advocates who favor an expansive definition of “comprehensive” immigration reform.

With that in mind, I’m willing to bet that we aren’t witnessing overlap, since the groups most opposed to a path to citizenship are Republicans (60 percent oppose) and conservatives, who oppose by a margin of 65 percent to 30 percent. Yes, conservative religious groups and Republican politicians are doing heavy outreach to their constituents, but with this much opposition, it’s hard to imagine they’ll find much success.

This, relatedly, is why Marco Rubio is so skittish about his involvement with immigration reform—Republican voters might understand that they need a bill to improve their standing with Latinos and other voters conscious of immigration, but they don’t like it. And if Rubio is seen as acquiescing to policies opposed by the base, it might endanger his (obvious) presidential ambitions.

It may also cause problems for House Speaker John Boehner. He’ll have to build support among reluctant Republicans who—in all likelihood—report to anti-reform voters. It’s either that, or he relies on Democratic votes, as he did with the fiscal cliff and the Violence Against Women Act. In which case, he has to act carefully, lest he jeopardize his leadership position.

Immigration, it seems, is another issue where GOP lawmakers are captive to their most conservative supporters. And if this ends up killing reform, Republicans may have to endure another election cycle where Democrats use conservative obstinance to rally Hispanic and Asian voters, and further secure their majority.