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April 03, 2006

Immigration: Ask Many Questions, Not One

Over the weekend, Mickey Kaus criticized an immigration question asked on a recent Time Magazine poll as having "comically biased wording." While I would not have been quite so harsh, I agree that the specific question Kaus complained about (Q9) provides a particularly one-sided framing of the dialogue on the House immigration bill.  However, I would also caution all involved against placing too much faith in any single question that attempts to model all aspects of opinion on immigration policy.  As a variety of recent surveys show, the immigration issue draws on attitudes and values that are in conflict for many Americans.  Thus, it is not surprising that on prospective immigration policy, similar poll questions are getting very different results.

First, the recent links:  Survey on the immigration have been released in recent polls by AP/IPSOS, Time/SRBI (March and January), Pew Research Center/Pew Hispanic Center, NBC News/Wall Street Journal and a survey conducted for the National Immigration Forum and the Manhattan Institute by the bi-partisan team of Lake Research and the Tarrance Group.  As always, the online Polling Report provides the best compendium, including the full text of each question as well as survey dates and sample sizes.

While these surveys ask a wide variety of different questions, several consistent themes emerge:

1) Large numbers of Americans are concerned about illegal immigration:

  • 68% agree that "illegal immigrants entering the United States" are an "extremely serious" or "very serious" problem; (Time)
  • 74% say immigration is a "very big" or "moderately big" problem (Pew)
  • 82% say the U.S. is not "doing enough along its borders to keep illegal immigrants from crossing into this country" (Time)
  • 71% say they are "more likely" to support a candidate who "favors tighter controls on illegal immigration" (NBC/WSJ)

2) Americans also express ambivalent feelings about the impact of illegal immigration.  One example -- among many -- is that between 55% and 65% agree that illegal immigrants are taking otherwise unwanted jobs: 

  • 65% agree that "illegal immigrants take jobs Americans don't want" (AP/IPSOS)
  • 55% "people who are here illegally...[are] mostly taking jobs that U.S. citizens do not want or cannot do" (Time)
  • 65% agree that immigrants coming to this country today...mostly take jobs Americans don't want? (Pew)

Given the conflict of these and other underlying attitudes it is not surprising that detailed descriptions of specific proposals produce very different results.  For example, the recently released surveys show support for guest worker programs ranging from 79% on the Time survey (Q11) to 37% in the recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (Q22b).  Just as with polling on prospective Iraq policy or Social Security reform, these questions force many respondents to confront specific proposals for the first time.

Respondents without pre-existing opinions on these proposals will react to whatever information or language the pollster presents drawing on more general attitudes, much as they would during the course of a political campaign.  So if you believe that detailed questions (like Q9 on the Time survey or Q22b on NBC/WSJ) provide a reasonable and balanced simulation of the coming campaign dialogue on immigration, the results are worthy of your attention.  If you do not, as Jon Stewart might put it, "ahhhh, not so much."

The report by the Pew Research Center identifies another reason for the big underlying variation across polls on immigration policy questions:

The public is deeply divided over the two fundamental questions lawmakers are struggling with: how to handle illegal immigrants already in the U.S.; and how to stem the flow of illegal immigrants in the future.

A narrow majority of the public (53%) believes that illegal immigrants should be required to go home, compared with 40% who feel they should be granted some kind of legal status allowing them to stay in this country. But when the option of a temporary worker program is introduced, the fissures in public attitudes toward immigration become even more evident.

As championed by President Bush, such a program would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. for a fixed amount of time on the condition they eventually go home. With this option on the table, opinion is almost evenly divided between those who favor allowing some illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. under a temporary work program (32%); those who say illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay permanently (32%); and those who believe they should go home (27%).

Given the above, we should expect a survey question that frames the choice as one between creating a temporary worker program and deporting all illegal immigrants to produce lopsided support for the guest worker program (as does Time's Q9, the one that Kaus hates).  Alternatively, we should expect a guest worker question framed in terms of the wisdom "reward[ing] people who have broken the law" (as does WSJ/NYT's Q22b) to show majority opposition to such a program.

Finally, two recommendations:  First, those still in search of the Holy Grail -- the perfect immigration policy question -- should review last year's advice from my friend "Professor M:"

If we were to lock pollsters of all partisan persuasions in a room and force them to pick the "best" question wording . . . we might end up with everyone asking the same question, but overall we would end up with less information about public opinion, not more. We are better off having the wide variety of different polls, with questions stressing different points of view on the issues, and then comparing them all to one another.

Second, this post barely scratches the surface with respect to public opinion and immigration policy.  For those who want to read more, I highly recommend the recent Pew Research Center report, especially Section III.  It's worth reading in full.

PS:  Today's daily video briefing (always free to non-subscribers) by Gallup's Frank Newport summarizes their recent data on the rated importance of immigration when compared to other issues as well as results from a survey of Mexico

Related Entries - Interpreting Polls, Polls in the News

Posted by Mark Blumenthal on April 3, 2006 at 05:38 PM in Interpreting Polls, Polls in the News | Permalink


how long will it take to be called for an interview at US embassy in Nigeria.(i am in nigeria) if i am above 21 and my dad just became a US citizen.

Posted by: charles | Jul 18, 2006 8:26:02 AM

I am doing a Report on Illegal Immigration, I want to know why it's so bad to have Illegal Immigrants in the USA.

Posted by: Ana Ramirez | Nov 21, 2006 2:51:21 PM

i am also doing a report on immigration i need to know from wich countries do immigrants come from

Posted by: mani | Mar 23, 2007 9:53:22 PM

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