As the United States reaches a population milestone of 300 million people, a new poll shows the American public growing increasingly restless over immigration levels and, in particular, the estimated 12 million illegal aliens living in the country. The poll comes shortly after President Bush signed a bill to construct an 1,100-kilometer fence along the U.S-Mexico border, and less than three weeks before congressional elections in November.
The public opinion survey, conducted by an independent research firm commissioned by a Washington-based public policy group, shows immigration as a top issue for American voters. Pollster Kellyanne Conway.
"For 53 percent of the electorate, they say it [immigration] is the top issue or one of their top-three issues," said Kellyanne Conway. "Immigration has never had this kind of primacy in previous elections."
Likely voters were surveyed in 14 congressional districts spread across the country, as well as in four states with hotly-contested Senate races.
Sixty eight percent of respondents said US immigration levels are too high, and just two percent said they are too low. Seventy percent said they are less likely to vote for candidates that favor increasing legal immigration, and 64 percent said they would back measures that result in voluntary or involuntary repatriation of illegal immigrants.
Conway points out that, on the question of what to do with illegal aliens, most polls have provided only two choices: expulsion or allowing them to earn legal status. She says her poll provided a third option: strict law enforcement that makes it practically impossible for undocumented workers to secure employment and support themselves in the United States, leaving them no choice but to leave of their own accord.
"We find that when you add that third way, that is the policy prescription that has the most support," said Conway.
The poll found 44 percent support for strict enforcement of immigration laws, 31 percent favor legalizing undocumented workers, and 20 percent favor large-scale deportations of illegal immigrants.
The poll was commissioned by the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limiting immigration to the United States. The group's director of research, Steve Camarota.
"It is clear that the public wants the illegal aliens to go home," said Steve Camarota.
Camarota says Americans have not turned anti-immigrant by any means, but that high immigration levels, both legal and illegal, are causing a backlash as Americans grow increasingly concerned about the legal, economic and cultural impact of what is perceived as an unchecked stream of newcomers.
Immigrant advocates concede that the public has grown wary of immigration in general, and frustrated with illegal immigration in particular. Michele Waslin directs immigration policy research at the National Council of La Raza, a US-based Hispanic advocacy group. She says, the more shrill the immigration debate gets, the more difficult it becomes for voters and politicians to rationally consider policy choices.
"Sometimes the debate has gone beyond a constructive, solution-driven debate, and has been much more name-calling, threatening, fear, hatred, divisiveness," said Michele Waslin. "And I do not think that is good for the country. I certainly do not think that is going to get us towards a solution to this very real problem."
President Bush has called for comprehensive immigration reform. His proposal would strengthen America's borders, establish a guest worker program, and provide a path to legal citizenship for many law-abiding undocumented workers.
The U.S. Senate has passed a bill that mirrors the president's plan. But a House version passed late last year takes a strict law enforcement approach - treating illegal aliens and those who assist them as felons, and requiring that undocumented workers return to their home country before applying for legal residency. The House bill provides no guest worker program and no path to earned legal status for undocumented workers. It is not clear how - or if - the vastly differing approaches taken by the two legislative chambers will be reconciled.
The National Council of la Raza's Michele Waslin says everyone wants to curb illegal immigration. The question, she says, is how to do it in a way that is practical and just.
"It is easy to say, 'We should get rid of them all, we need to deport all undocumented immigrants.' But, when given the opportunity to chose between a comprehensive immigration solution and making life [for illegal immigrants] so miserable that people would chose to go home on their own, reasonable people chose the comprehensive solution," she said.
The costs and benefits of immigration have long been debated in the United States.
A new study concludes that immigration is overwhelmingly positive for the US economy. In an article published in Foreign Affairs magazine, the Manhattan Institute's Tamar Jacoby argues that many newcomers are simply responding by the laws of supply and demand: coming to take low-wage jobs that most Americans do not want to perform. Jacoby says immigrants contribute far more to America's economy than they consume in social services, and that, without them, economic growth and dynamism would suffer.
Critics point out that such studies do not take into account the costs of rapid population growth or of assimilating large numbers of newcomers.