Extremists and nativists have been very vocal in opposing the immigration bill and will likely claim victory now that Congress has shelved it for renegotiation. The bill was certainly terribly flawed. It was a mish-mash of half measures and poorly thought out programs which would cost too much and do too little.
But the opponents of the bill mostly made the argument that the American people did not want 'amnesty' as offered by the bill, suggesting that the people want to throw illegals out and build a wall to keep them there. However, despite all their loud and angry rhetoric, poll after poll conducted in the past year has shown that they are just dead wrong. The only people who nativist blowhards like Lou Dobbs are actually speaking for are other extremists like themselves.
Starting last spring, before the debate over the immigration bill was in full swing, a poll from Time Magazine showed a willingness by the public to accept the idea of putting immigrants on a track to citizenship - and overwhelming support for the idea of a guest worker program to provide for the nation's labor needs. This poll showed almost exactly the kind of conflicted public opinion which was reflected in the immigration bill, with a majority of those polled supporting heightened border security, but even larger numbers supporting legalization of illegal immigrants and a generous guest worker programs. Overall, 79% of those polled supported a guest worker program and 78% supported a citizenship path for current illegals if they met simple requirements like learning English. A total of 62% supported strong border enforcement, while only 47% supported mass deportation of illegals.
Now that the debate has heated up, all the shouting and fearmongering seems not to have had much effect. People are still basically opposed to extreme measures against immigrants and in favor of legalization and guest worker programs. Last month a New York Times poll showed 65% of independents, 66% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats supporting a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. It shows even stronger support for a guest worker program.
The very latest poll from the Washington Post, taken last week, shows that public support for more sensible immigration policies is still strong, with 52% of the general public supporting legal citizenship for illegals and 64% supporting a guest worker program. Interestingly, the same poll suggests that most Americans do not think that immigration is quite the pressing issue nativists would have us believe, ranking it below the Iraq war, the economy, gas prices, terrorism, health care and other concerns.
And lest you think that only left-leaning sources are getting these kinds of results in polls, similar surveys have been carried out by the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, both of which identified significant majorities favoring giving legal status to illegal immigrants, either as guest workers or as eventual citizens with some reasonable restrictions.
Studies have shown much greater support for liberal immigration policies among lawmakers than among the public, yet despite this, the immigration bill failed to pass the Senate, suggesting that the problem with the bill is more profound than the so-called amnesty deal which it contains. Objections were raised against the bill from both the Left and the Right, focusing on both the impracticality of its enforcement provisions and the inadequacy of its programs to deal with the obvious need for immigrants in our labor force. Ultimately it was the issue of the guest worker program which broke the bill, which was essentiallly killed by an amendment which would have gutted the already incredibly inadequate guest worker program and rendered it worthless. The addition of even more restrictions on guest workers was the final straw of worthlessness which broke the camel's back.
This does not mean that immigration reform has gone away. The bill will bounce back quickly in a revised form, and we'll start the debate all over again. But we have learned things in this process, and we ought to keep them in mind. Chief among those lessons is that while the nativists are loud and braying, they do not represent the mindset of the American people who are mostly in favor of legalizing illegals and welcoming guest workers. Equally importantly, we need to remember that while this may be a top issue for the John Birch Society and Lou Dobbs, most Americans have other more serious concerns on their minds. It would be nice if Congress and the media stopped pandering to the nativists and paid some attention to the rest of us.