One-Third of the Public Doesn't Care about Immigration Reform, New iMediaEt

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A new iMediaEthics poll suggests Americans are more laid back about immigration reform than what most polls show, with about a third of the public unengaged on the issue. The rest appear to be about evenly divided on whether to allow immigrants living illegally in the U.S. to remain or not. (For all poll results, other than the current iMediaEthics poll, see The Polling Report).

Two other polls, by ABC/Washington Post and NBC/Wall Street Journal, reinforce this picture of a more laidback public, suggesting that close to half of all Americans are unengaged on the issue. These two polls also report that among engaged citizens, slightly more people favor than oppose allowing those who immigrated illegally to remain in the country.

The findings from all three polls challenge most other media polls that purport to show 95% of the public with a meaningful opinion, and significant majorities favoring a path to citizenship or legal residency for immigrants.

The Dominant Picture – The “Whim” of the Public

Most pollsters use forced-choice questions to pressure respondents to offer an opinion on the immigration issue, even if they don’t have one. In so doing, and ignoring any measure of intensity, they are able to show a highly engaged public, with virtually all Americans having a fixed opinion on the issue.

This “whim of the public” approach typically shows large majorities supporting legal residency or citizenship for those living in the U.S. illegally, as long as they meet certain conditions.

Shown in the first chart below are the results of several recent polls on the issue, each one pressing respondents to come up with an answer and ignoring how strongly they feel about the issue. Some of the questions asked about allowing immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship, while others asked only about legal residency.

The iMediaEthics poll included an explicit “don’t know” option, so in order to make its results comparable to other polls, a follow-up question was asked of the non-opinion respondents to see if they “leaned” toward one option or another.

Note that the average “no opinion” is 5%, giving the illusion of an almost fully engaged public. The other major conclusion from these results is that a significant majority of Americans appear to support a pathway to citizenship or legal residency.

The differences among the polls are most likely due to relatively small differences in question wording, as well as differences in how many other questions were asked before the one on a pathway to legal residency/citizenship.

Still, the overall pattern here is fairly pronounced – very few people are unengaged in the issue (have no opinion), and there is a substantial majority in favor of allowing immigrants living illegally in this country to remain (either with citizenship or legal residency).

The Less Publicized Picture – The “Will” of the Public

While respondents in a survey will readily offer an opinion if pressed for one, many will also readily admit that the opinion they expressed is not one they hold near and dear to their hearts. Indeed, much “public opinion” measured by the media polls is at best whimsical, a momentary decision by some respondents to choose one policy option rather another, with no assurance that the same question, asked the next day, will produce the same results.

To probe at least a little into the minds of the respondents, in order to determine which views they care about and which are merely top-of-mind expressions, pollsters can ask respondents if they feel “strongly” or “not strongly” about the issue. In fact, sometimes pollsters will measure this intensity of opinion, but when they report the results, they  typically combine the very intense with the less intense responses.

Another way to measure intensity is to ask respondents who have just chosen one of the options offered in the survey if they would be “upset” if the opposite happened to the position they prefer. In this poll, for example, iMediaEthics asked respondents who said they supported allowing immigrants living illegally in the U.S. to stay, how upset they would be if such immigrants were not allowed to stay – would they be very, somewhat, not too, or not at all upset. Only respondents who indicated they would be “very” or “somewhat” upset were classified as having intense opinions.

Similarly, people who said they opposed allowing immigrants to stay were asked how upset they would be if such immigrants were allowed to stay, with the same criteria used to classify respondents as having intense opinions.

The “upset” or intense responses are treated here as representing more realistically the “will” of the public. If people said they opposed allowing the immigrants to stay, but would not be upset if they were allowed to stay, our assumption is that the respondents were not attached to their views – that instead  such views were “whimsical” or “top-of-mind,” and could easily change.

Another way of looking at the effort to differentiate the “whim” from the “will” of the public is to recognize that if a person is not upset with either outcome, then that person does not have a meaningful opinion on the issue. Essentially, that person doesn’t care whether the proposed policy goes into effect or not.

While iMediaEthics frequently uses the “upset” format to measure opinion intensity, asking people if they feel “strongly” or “not strongly” about the issue also provides a way to help differentiate the “whim” from the “will” of the public. The two methods do not produce identical results, but both provide a rough indicator of how many people really care about the issue, and how many are unengaged – and  thus allow a more realistic view of the public’s “will” than the forced-choice questions that pressure virtually everyone to come up with an opinion.

The following chart compares the results of three polls – the iMediaEthics poll, which used the “upset” questions to differentiate the intense (meaningful) opinions from the less intense (whimsical) views, and the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll and the ABC/Washington Post poll, which both asked respondents if they felt “strongly” or “not strongly” about the issue.

Although there are clearly some differences among the three polls, they present a much different picture collectively than the polls shown in the first chart. Here we can see that a significant portion of the public is genuinely unengaged on the issue – they don’t feel “strongly” one way or the other, and would not be “upset” with either option (allowing immigrants who are living in the U.S. illegally to stay, or not allowing them to stay).

ABC/WP and NBC/WSJ find close to half of the public unengaged, while iMediaEthics finds about a third. Despite the differences, they all show a much more unengaged public than the polls in the first chart, which average just 5% unengaged.

Two of the polls suggest more people support a pathway to legal residency/citizenship than oppose it, by margins of 7 points (NBC/WSJ) and 8 points (ABC/WP). The iMediaEthics poll suggests a more evenly divided public.

These differences can most likely be attributed to question wording and mode of interviewing.

Interviews for ABC/WP and NBC/WSJ, for example, are all conducted by live interviewers, while interviewing by SurveyUSA for iMediaEthics is done either by automated phone calls or online questionnaires (for respondents with cell phones). Some studies suggest that respondents may be more blunt (perhaps more honest) when they are not speaking directly to a live interviewer, admitting to views that may be seen as not politically correct. That is one possible explanation for fewer iMediaEthics respondents favoring immigration reform. Still, it’s not clear which mode of interviewing produces the more accurate measure of what a person really feels.

The difference in percentages of unengaged respondents between the iMediaEthics poll and the other two polls could be a function of using “upset” to measure intensity rather than the question on feeling “strongly” or “not strongly” about the issue. Research is needed to determine how comparable the two measures might be. And it’s not clear which approach might produce a more valid measure.

Nevertheless, whatever the differences among these three polls, they are much more like each other than they are like the polls shown in the first chart, polls that pressured respondents to produce an opinion whether they had one or not.

Pathway to Legal Residency vs. Citizenship – A Contrived Issue?

Apart from deportation, the two major policy options for treating immigrants living in the U.S. illegally are 1) a pathway to legal residency followed by a pathway to citizenship, or 2) a pathway to legal residency that does not include the opportunity to apply for citizenship.

Several polls have addressed that issue, but it’s not clear that for the general public, the difference is meaningful. If immigrants are granted the ability to stay in the U.S., why would they not be given the opportunity also to apply for citizenship – assuming they meet the appropriate conditions (such as passing a security background check, learning English, and paying back taxes)?

In all of the polls I’ve seen, a rationale for denying citizenship opportunity while granting legal residency has not been articulated. Presumably, the pollsters are trying to see if Americans believe it is unfair for immigrants living here illegally to be granted an advantage over immigrants who are applying for residency and citizenship while still living in their own countries. But the polls suggest that the rationale is not especially salient – that most people don’t think of that aspect of the immigration problem.

As evidence for this notion, Gallup conducted a split sample experiment, which showed that about two-thirds of Americans would vote for a law that “would allow illegal immigrants in the United States the chance to become permanent legal residents if they meet certain requirements,” or a law that would allow such immigrants “the chance to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements.” One half the sample was asked about the chance for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to become “legal residents,” and that option was supported by 69% of Americans, with 29% opposed. The other half of the sample was asked about the chance for  immigrants not here legally to become “U.S. citizens,” and that option was supported by 65%, with 32% opposed.

These very similar findings (the differences are not statistically significant) suggest that most Americans don’t make much of a distinction between applying for legal residency and applying for U.S. citizenship. Still, polls that ask respondents if they favor one option or another will report significant percentages who opt for legal residency without citizenship.

The iMediaEthics poll included such a question, in order to see how committed people are to the distinction in the two options. The specific question asked: “If illegal immigrants, who have otherwise obeyed the law, ARE allowed to stay in this country, should they be able to apply for U.S. citizenship, or should they be allowed to apply ONLY for permanent U.S. residency – or doesn’t it matter to you either way?”

Overall, 21% felt strongly that immigrants living here illegally should be allowed to apply for citizenship, 25% felt strongly they should not be allowed to apply for citizenship, and 54% said it either didn’t matter to them one way or the other, or they wouldn’t be upset with either policy.

Among the third of Americans who intensely support allowing immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally to stay in the country, 39% support a pathway to citizenship, 47% don’t care one way or the other, and 14% oppose citizenship.

These findings suggest that even when pollsters raise the issue of citizenship vs. legal residency only, a majority of Americans don’t have strong feelings either way. Among those who feel strongly, slightly more lean against citizenship (25%) than for it (21%).

One indication that this issue is not important to Americans can be found in this NBC/WSJ poll question:

This is the highest level of support I’ve seen by any poll for either legal residency or citizenship (this one asks about immigrants becoming “legal American citizens”). I suspect the results are so positive because of all the conditions attached to staying in the country: paying a fine, paying back taxes, passing a security background check, and taking “other required steps.”

Among people who feel strongly about the issue, they break 39% in favor and just 14% opposed, with the rest (47%) not having strong views either way.

Border Security – Firm Impressions

While the public as a whole shows no intense majority consensus on the issues of deportation and citizenship vs. legal residency, it does include a clear majority who feel that border security right now is not as strong as it should be. Fifty-two percent believe strongly that border security “has to be stronger before immigration reform can be adopted,” while just 15% believe strongly that “border security is strong enough now to justify immigration reform.”



The more “realistic” measures of public opinion, which take into account how intensely people feel about the issue, suggest that very few people are opposed to a pathway to citizenship for immigrants living illegally in this country. Opposition appears to be lowest when the conditions for that path are fairly rigorous.

By the same token, intense support for immigration reform is also limited. Some polls suggest more support than opposition for a pathway to citizenship/legal residency, with the NBC/WSJ poll just mentioned showing the greatest margin in favor: 39% to 14% — still with close to half the public unengaged.

These results suggest that the imperative for immigration reform does not come from the general public overall. Though the vast majority of Americans would be copacetic with allowing immigrants living here illegally to stay (if they met certain conditions), a majority is not demanding such a solution. The real push for reform has come from specific groups, and from some political leaders who are convinced that immigration reform is necessary.

The realistic poll findings also suggest that should immigration reform fail, a large majority of the public will accept that outcome fairly easily.

This realistic picture of the American public confirms the importance of political leadership to provide direction to public policy. Expecting the general public to demand certain policies will not lead to solutions. This is not a direct democracy, and the leadership that is necessary to address the issue will not come from the people, but from their elected leaders – or not at all.


Check out the iMediaEthics poll methodology.

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One-Third of the Public Doesn’t Care about Immigration Reform, New iMediaEthics PollCheck Finds

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