Sunday, July 18, 2004

OpinionJournal - About Those Huddled Masses

OpinionJournal - Extra

About Those Huddled Masses
Americans aren't anti-immigrant--far from it.

Saturday, June 26, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT

The immigration reform movement dodged a bullet in Utah this week. Four-term Republican Rep. Chris Cannon was forced to do what incumbent congressmen almost never do anymore: defend his seat in a special primary against a former state legislator, Matt Throckmorton. In the end, Mr. Cannon won decisively, but only after an ugly standoff over immigration policy.

Not that Utah is home to many immigrants--at 7% of the population, it's well below the national average--but Mr. Cannon has for some years been a Republican point man on the issue. Most notably, last summer, he was one of the original Republican sponsors of the pending Agricultural Job Opportunity, Benefits and Security, or AgJOBS, Act, which would make it easier to employ foreign farmhands and allow a limited number of illegal workers to earn green cards.

Rep. Cannon's reward: Out-of-state anti-immigration groups, Numbers USA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (which goes by the acronym FAIR), turned his sleepy district into a national battleground, pouring in an estimated $100,000--big money in that part of the world--for billboards, TV, print and radio ads and other shenanigans. And if Mr. Cannon had lost--or even if it had been a close election--the repercussions would have echoed far beyond Utah, in the Bush White House and in every district in the country represented by a senator or congressman who favors immigration reform.

This wasn't the first time the anti-immigrant movement has tried this tactic, and it won't be the last. In 2000, the target was Michigan's Sen. Spencer Abraham, chairman of the Senate immigration subcommittee and a longtime opponent of restriction, who had led the successful 1999 effort to increase H1-B visas for information-technology workers. FAIR and its allies descended on Michigan, spending lavishly and claiming that the Abraham race was a "national referendum" on immigration. When the senator lost, they declared victory, although postelection polling showed he had been defeated from the left--a brilliant get-out-the-vote effort by the Democratic Party and the United Auto Workers--rather than the right. But the damage had been done. Others on the Hill took careful note and several were visibly intimidated. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, for example, abruptly backed off immigration issues and resigned as chairman of the immigration subcommittee when he ran for re-election in 2004. This year, in addition to gunning for Rep. Cannon, the restrictionists are gearing up to go after Arizona Republican congressmen Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe, also strong proponents of immigration reform.

Why does the tactic work, even in the face of evidence like the Michigan polling? Because politicians--even pro-immigration politicians--believe that the public is frightened of the immigrant influx. And as a result, any threat to highlight the issue is seen as potentially fatal for liberalizers.
Is this true? Are voters inevitably and implacably hostile to immigration? There are plenty of polling data to suggest that they are. No survey in 40 years has shown anything like a majority in favor of easing quotas, as virtually all reformers believe is necessary to bring policy into line with U.S. labor needs; and the share of the public that would like to see ceilings lowered, in bad economic times as large as two-thirds, never runs below 40%.

But a closer examination of the evidence suggests a more complicated picture. In fact, popular opinion is mixed and highly suggestible. And activists trading on the threat of voter backlash are playing with a shadow menace that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

The truth is, even more than on most issues, public attitudes toward immigration are fraught with contradictions. Polls consistently show that people look favorably on legal immigrants. Three-quarters feel positively about previous waves of newcomers--the Ellis Island wave and others--and, according to the Gallup Organization, as many as 60% believe that immigration is a "good thing for this country today." Yet voters wildly exaggerate the percentage of the current influx that is illegal. Most think a majority of new arrivals are unauthorized, though the actual proportion is less than a third. And while three-quarters of the public recognize that foreigners do "jobs most Americans do not want," between 50% and 60% still say that immigrants "mostly hurt" the economy.

Attitudes toward immigration policy are even harder to parse. In the wake of 9/11, polls showed large percentages--as many as two-thirds--demanding that we "seal" the border and vastly increase spending on enforcement. That anxiety has eased somewhat in the past three years, but voters are still all over the map on guest-worker programs and dubious about any measure that would allow illegal immigrants to earn green cards or citizenship.

On President Bush's much publicized January proposal, which combined a guest-worker program with a carefully hedged plan to bring illegal laborers in out of the shadows, most soundings show the public against, sometimes by just a few points, in other surveys by as much as 15%. Yet as the pro-reform National Immigration Forum has demonstrated in a recent poll, those who oppose the president's plan include both people who think it goes too far and those who feel it doesn't go far enough--and if you make that distinction and then add those who think the White House got it about right to those who would like us to go further, they outnumber restrictionist opponents by a whopping 2 to 1.

How to make sense of this tangled skein? In fact, there is one thread that runs consistently through all the polling: In the face of widespread illegality, on the border and in the workplace, the public wants to restore the rule of law. Different soundings use different words, depending on their political orientation. Some talk about "cracking down," others about creating a pipeline that is "safe, legal and orderly" and still others about a "secure, controlled system" or "realistic limits, meaningfully enforced." But the numbers are virtually identical. As leading anti-immigration Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado puts it: "Every poll shows that over 75% of citizens support border security and strict enforcement of our immigration laws." This is what explains the apparent contradictions among other findings. The public is not anti-immigrant--far from it. What people want, however they phrase it, is to regain a sense of control. But that hunger--and this is the good news for reformers--does not necessarily favor immigration opponents like Mr. Tancredo.
On the contrary. The question--the critical question for the future--is whether restrictionists or reformers are more likely to deliver on a promise of control. And surely in a global economy, with the world growing ever smaller and international supply and demand driving labor markets, the restrictionist claim that we can stop or radically reduce the influx is less and less plausible. Much of the public appears to sense this. One of the most striking findings in the National Immigration Forum's recent survey is that 73% understand that deporting the 10 million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. is "unrealistic." Denying the problem--either those already here or those we will increasingly need to fill empty jobs in coming decades--is no solution, and wishing it away won't bring control. Only a policy that recognizes the reality of the flow and seeks to manage it with a combination of credible limits and better enforcement can hope to restore the order that the public so desperately craves.

President Bush understands this--indeed, it was the central thrust of his proposals--and so, increasingly, do others who favor easing quotas. What applies for the restrictionists applies for reformers, too: The U.S. will never have an airtight border, and it would be a grave mistake to overpromise. The only thing worse than the status quo would be a liberalized policy, lacking improved enforcement mechanisms, that failed to restore a sense of order. That would just inflame anti-immigrant sentiment and could provoke a draconian crackdown.

The stakes could hardly be higher, and the challenge is clear. What voters want is to get a grip on the problem. They want a solution and they want it to work. Not only are policy makers who recognize reality in a better position to find that fix than those who do not. But rather than fear the issue or duck it defensively, reformers ought to try making the case that they, and only they, can deliver what the public wants.

Ms. Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Her most recent book is "Reinventing the Melting Pot: The New Immigrants and What It Means to Be American" (Basic Books, 2004).


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