U.S. public, 'elites' differ on immigration

By Stephen Dinan
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

12/18/02


Sixty percent of Americans believe present immigration levels are a "critical threat to the vital interests of the United States," but only 14 percent of the nation's leaders think so, a new analysis finds. Top Stories
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And when asked whether immigration levels should be kept the same, increased or reduced, 55 percent of Americans opted for a reduction, while 18 percent of "elites" thought so, according to a report being released today from the Center for Immigration Studies.


The center advocates lower legal immigration and a stronger effort to prevent and expel illegal immigrants. They say the polls show that the public agrees with them. Those who defend the current immigration levels say their surveys reveal the opposite.


The gap between private and elite opinion is the largest among foreign policy issues and goes a long way toward explaining United States' conflicted public policy on immigration, says report co-author Steven A. Camarota.
For example, it explains why the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents doubled in the 1990s, but interior enforcement to identify and expel illegal immigrants became more lax, he says.


"How does one make sense of a schizophrenic policy like that? The only way you do make sense of that is by looking at these poll numbers," Mr. Camarota says.


He and co-author Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, analyzed data from the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations' 2002 survey of opinions of the public and "elites," who were defined as members of Congress, top business and labor union executives, religious leaders, and newspaper editors and television and radio news directors.


In addition to the 60 percent of the public who view immigration as a critical threat, 31 percent deem it important, and 8 percent don't see it as a threat. By contrast, 41 percent of leaders were not concerned.


There is also a similar gap between the public and leaders on illegal immigration.


Among the public, 70 percent think that controlling and reducing illegal immigration should be an important goal of foreign policy, about the same number that ranked energy supplies and military superiority as important.


Only 22 percent of "elites" say reducing illegal immigration is an important foreign policy goal, about the same percentage that ranked trade deficits and protecting weak nations as important.


"Immigration is simply not on the radar of the elite, whereas the public seems to be quite concerned about the issue," the report said.


"There is a very small percentage of the American public that is die-hard anti-immigrant, and there is a small percent that is die-hard pro-immigrant, and there are a lot of people in the middle," says Angela Kelley, deputy director for programs at the National Immigration Forum.


Mr. Camarota says the best example of the perceptions gap on immigration was seen this year when President Bush proposed to offer legal status to hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens.


Several congressional Republican leaders, almost the entire Democratic congressional leadership, unions and business leaders, and religious leaders all supported versions of the amnesty proposal, which Mr. Bush had promised Mexican President Vicente Fox.


But although it was set to pass by an anonymous voice vote, a grass-roots public outcry spearheaded by conservative talk radio made it a public issue and almost prevented it.


"Every interest group is lined up on one side of it, there's just one group that hasn't bought into it, and it's the public," he says. In essence, he says, support is not strong enough to force a cut in illegal or legal immigration, but it is enough to prevent a pro-active policy.


But Ms. Kelley says that what really happened on the amnesty bill was that the sides were pushing very different proposals and couldn't agree on a unified plan.


"This was not an issue that received the full-throttled effort of a wide range of constituencies, including this organization," she says. "The timing wasn't right and the proposal didn't go far enough."


"To connect it up with public opinion is a pretty incredible contortion that lacks credibility," she says.
Mr. Beck says that the survey numbers also point to a political opening.


"It does suggest that if a party or if a candidate that was in a competitive position raised this issue, they could really gain a lot of extra support," Mr. Beck says. If they tried to use the issue as a rallying point, it could move even higher on the list of foreign policy concerns.


"The public doesn't tend to start acting until they see a leader mobilizing them to act, and we've basically been without such a thing," he says.


Ms. Kelley says history has been unkind to those who have taken on that role. "The most ardent restrictionists who are public figures are those like a Pat Buchanan, has never been able to garner much support for his views."
On the other hand, she says, pro-immigration politicians such as President Bush, his brother Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and New York Gov. George E. Pataki have all done well.


The analysis nevertheless revealed some bad news for Mr. Bush on his immigration policy. Among the public, 41 percent rated him "poor" in that area his lowest foreign policy showing. His next poorest showing was on global warming, where 32 percent ranked his performance "poor."

 

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