American Voters See Improved Border Security as a Key Component of Meaningful Immigration Reform

After months of media speculation, numerous behind the scenes meetings of Washington’s power brokers, and a long drafting process by the “Gang of Eight,” the United States Senate finally voted on June 27th to approve a major immigration reform bill.  Speaker of the House John Boehner has already announced that the measure passed by the Senate will not come up for a vote in the House of Representatives.  However, the Senate bill can certainly shed some light on where this immigration reform debate is ultimately headed, especially as it relates to the issue of border security.

The last minute inclusion of the so-called “border surge” amendment has sparked a lot of debate on both sides of the aisle.  This controversial amendment would double the number of Border Control agents employed by the American government, add additional fencing between the United States and Mexico, and ensure that the latest technology is fully implemented in the effort to secure this critical border.  Ten years later, only if the border security plan has been fully implemented, could illegal immigrants begin to apply for green cards, and then they would need to wait an additional three years before they could apply for citizenship.

A Fox News Poll, conducted by Anderson Robbins Research and Shaw & Company Research from June 9th through 11th, asked voters the simple question of whether they favored or opposed strengthening border security and figuring out ways to prevent people from entering the United States illegally.  Americans answered with a resounding “yes.”  More than eighty percent (81{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of those interviewed said they were in favor while only seventeen percent (17{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) said they were opposed.  Support was strongest with Republicans (90{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}), but Independents (81{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) and Democrats (74{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) were also overwhelmingly supportive of the general idea of finding ways to better secure America’s borders.

Before the specific details of the “border surge” amendment were revealed, another national survey was conducted June 20th and 21st by Rasmussen Reports.  This survey takes it a step further and suggests that the American people should in fact view the “border surge” compromise very favorably.  The Rasmussen survey asked the question whether those who are now in this country illegally should be granted legal status right away, or whether legal status should come only after the border is secured.  A resounding sixty-four percent (64{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of the respondents said the legal status should come only after the border is secured.

While a lot has been made of this amendment being added to win Republican support, the Rasmussen survey shows bipartisan support with eighty-three percent (83{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Republicans, sixty-four percent (64{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Independents, and forty-seven percent (47{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Democrats expressing their belief that border security needs to come first.  Only thirty-eight percent (38{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Democratic voters said the illegal immigrants should be granted legal status right away.

chart 1

However, it would be a mistake to look at the Rasmussen survey on its own without the added context of the other publicly available research conducted this year.   For example, a CBS News/New York Times Poll conducted back in April shows fifty-six percent (56{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Americans saying they believe illegal immigrants already in the country “should be allowed to obtain legal status while border security is still being strengthened.”  Only thirty-five percent (35{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of survey respondents said the immigrants “should be allowed to obtain legal status only after the border is secure.”

Similarly, a January 2013 bipartisan national immigration reform survey conducted by Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies found that only thirty-one percent (31{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Americans agreed with the following statement.   “The first priority on immigration should be getting control of our border.  Until we do that, we should not be granting legal status to those who came here illegally, as it will just invite more illegal border crossings.”  Instead, a strong sixty-four percent (64{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) said they agreed with this statement. “Improving border security and fixing our broken immigration system are both important.  We should require immigrants to become legal and pay taxes, while also improving border security.”

Americans clearly find making our border more secure to be quite important, and it is very likely that something similar to the compromise passed by the Senate will be included in any final legislation which makes its way to President Obama’s desk.  These seemingly contradictory research findings just underscore how truly complicated the immigration issue is and just how monumental an accomplishment it will be if a comprehensive bipartisan reform bill is passed into law this year.

Interestingly, Americans remain quite skeptical about whether the borders will be secured even if a border security law is passed.  The Rasmussen Reports survey immediately asked this as a follow-up question, and only twenty-eight percent (28{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of those interviewed said they felt the federal government would be very likely (11{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) or somewhat likely (17{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) to “actually secure the border and prevent illegal immigration.”  On the contrary, fifty-nine percent (59{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of voters interviewed said they felt it was either not very likely (34{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) or not at all likely (25{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) that the borders would actually be secured.  Republicans (76{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} total not likely) and Independents (68{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) were particularly skeptical of the federal government’s follow-through, and more than a third (37{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) of Democratic voters shared in the skepticism.

chart 2

Whether they prefer seeing it happen before, during, or after a legal status is granted to those already in this country illegally, American voters clearly want to see an effort made to improve border security.  Voters though have significant doubts about whether the federal government would take the steps necessary to secure the border even if such steps were included in the legislation.

Public Opinion Strategies