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Survey: Voters Reaching for Just the Right Balance of Immigration Reform, Enforcement

Immigration policy experts believe the U.S. is ready for change, even as congressional inability to compromise and excessive partisanship have impeded progress on agreements from the federal government down to state and local levels.

Some of these experts discussed findings drawn from survey data gathered from U.S. voters in April on a recent panel at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, offering assessments on how immigration-related issues could be resolved.

“Americans overwhelmingly believe immigration helps the Untied States and that, as a nation of immigrants, the American people feel it is necessary to continue this strong tradition,” said the BPC/BPC Action report. “They want the federal government to tackle immigration reform; it just needs to be the right kind of reform — focused on building a controlled system that prioritizes what they think is the right kind of immigrant.”

Voters’ views on what possible solutions could look like differed based on partisanship, social ideals and economic backgrounds, though there was some agreement.

“Americans across both parties embrace our history as a nation of immigrants, but they have an urgent desire for the federal government to develop an enforced, fair and consistent system that addresses these systemic issues of concern,” said Michelle Stockwell, senior vice president and executive director of BPC Action.

At a local level, voters in many communities pressure their officials to take a side in the immigration debate rather than remain on the fence.

“No matter which way they go, someone is going to sue them from one side or the other,” said Theresa Cardinal-Brown, BPC’s director of immigration & cross-border policy who co-presented the survey findings. “This continuing uncertainty and frustration is really impacting local elected officials and their ability to get their job done.”

Local law enforcement departments across the country are partnering with federal agencies to determine the best posture on immigration-related issues, as voters pressure police to either take more aggressive action or back off on enforcement.

“They either need to do all or nothing – 100 percent enforce immigration law or 100 percent stay away from ICE,” Cardinal-Brown said. “And that’s not traditionally where they have been.”

She added that voters widely believe current immigration policies help the United States, but they feel the system is broken with no one in charge and requires new legislative and administration action.

Communities with fewer resources to serve their residents also are more directly impacted by immigration issues, Cardinal-Brown said, with many of those areas relying largely on immigrant workers for agricultural labor or similar low-skilled jobs.

Voters expressed that they largely view immigration as essential to society and diversity but harmful to the economy, Cardinal-Brown said. Many voters expressed concerns about being passed over for federal education funding grants or in the job market by immigrants who they believe are given higher priority.

Laura Hall, co-presenter of the report and senior manager of BPC Action, said conservative voters want to see a push for increased border security, while liberal respondents want more policy reform to ease the process of entering the country and obtaining legal residency or citizenship.

According to survey data, voters generally believe immigrants should speak English to streamline communication in public settings.

While immigration is not the top issue at the polls, it still means a lot to voters, said Jacinta Ma, director of foreign policy and advocacy at the National Immigration Forum.

Panelist Frank Sharry, founder and executive director at America’s Voice, said the U.S. government needs to push tougher border security measures while implementing more liberal policies on citizenship.

The room for compromise decreases by the day, Sharry believes.

“There’s a sense on the left that if the big deal is enforcement for increases in legal immigration in a more flexible system as well as a legalization component, that we’ve had enforcement for 25 years but not the other two components,” Sharry said. “I think the left is growing increasingly hostile to the idea of making compromise when the goalposts seem to keep moving.”

He added that more moderate politicians get outhustled as partisan divides have grown. Each time Congress was close to change, he said, divisions within the Republican Party have torpedoed those hopes as GOP members seeking a more bipartisan solution are less willing to reach for compromise in the face of widening partisan gaps.

Calls from some Democratic candidates and lawmakers to “abolish ICE” are also eroding room for compromise in the middle, panelists agreed.

“One of the things that concerns me is that immigration has become a partisan issue,” Ma said. “There’s research out there that shows people will perceive an issue, and you can talk about the exact same issue, but depending on who supports it – whether they’re a Republican or Democrat – will affect the person’s willingness to consider whether this is an issue they can support or not.”

Ma added that the country widely believes in supporting and upholding laws if they are fair, but voters are frustrated with the system because laws are being enforced in a way some voters feel is unfair.

Instances in which legal citizens experience discrimination or when politicians on both sides use pitched rhetoric fuel frustrations among voters who either feel agencies aren’t enforcing laws fairly or fear that jobs are at stake.

CNN politics reporter Tal Kopan, who moderated the discussion, said about 70 percent of immigrants in the U.S. are legal citizens, yet negative perceptions persist with some people calling immigrants’ citizenship into question due to economic or political frustrations.

Some voters’ frustrations on immigration-related issues stem from a reluctance among congressional Democrats to compromise with the majority of Republican representatives and President Trump on policy matters, said panelist Jorge Lima, senior vice president of policy at Americans for Prosperity.

Lima said he believes that although these frustrations often have caused voters to close themselves off to the topic, the national discussion has a reached a point where people are ready for reform.

“What ends up happening is that rather than forcing themselves to choose, unfortunately people ignore,” Lima said. “That’s why immigration doesn’t drive their action at the poll. They’ll see this and they’ll see what’s happening, and maybe that’s going to change now, because maybe we’ve reached this boiling point where people just can’t ignore.”

Brad Allen
Brad M. Allen is a young journalist from Janesville, Wisconsin. He is currently studying Political Journalism and Economics at George Mason University, and he has recently completed his eighth semester of college at UW-Whitewater, where he studies Journalism. He is slated to graduate from UW-Whitewater in December 2018. Brad has worked with two newspaper publications in the southern Wisconsin area, those being The Royal Purple student-run newspaper at UW-Whitewater and the Janesville Gazette daily newspaper. Thus far in his time at the Royal Purple, Brad has been a prominent member of the editorial team in several roles ranging from the Business section editor to Managing Editor. A fair portion of his reporting experience there has involved investigating federal policy and national issues and interviewing officials and economists in southern Wisconsin to boil those issues down to a local level. At the Janesville Gazette, Brad designs newspaper pages containing stories on various state, national and international issues. His job there involves reading and dissecting content written by organizations such as the Associated Press and Tribune News Services to choose which stories will be most relevant to readers in Janesville.

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