Polls, Interest Groups Disagree on Immigration Bill

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Congress this week expects to wrap up debate on immigration legislation. Lawmakers are getting an overwhelming number of phone calls against the bill, with people calling it amnesty for undocumented immigrants. But polls show public opinion is more complicated on the matter.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

Supporters of an immigration bill before the Senate today may face the same question that Democratic presidential candidates faced last night.

Mr. WOLF BLITZER (Anchor, CNN's "The Situation Room"): You support granting legal status to roughly 12 million people who entered the United States illegally. Why is this not an amnesty program?

INSKEEP: That's Wolf Blitzer of CNN in a debate in New Hampshire last night. The question was directed at New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): You don't immediately get an amnesty. You don't immediately get citizenship. It's a process that takes about 13 years.

INSKEEP: And Richardson says he broadly supports that idea, even though he thinks the plan before the U.S. Senate this week is too harsh. It would, among other things, require heads of household to go home to apply for legal status.

Other Democratic candidates also took complicated positions. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware says he opposes the building of a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico. He says he opposes it even though he voted for it in the Senate.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): The reason I voted for the fence was that it was the only alternative that was there, and I voted for the fence related to drugs. You can - a fence will stop 20 kilos of cocaine coming through that fence. It will not stop someone climbing over it or around it.

INSKEEP: Public opinion on the immigration debate is just as complicated as the positions of the presidential candidates.

Here's NPR's Jennifer Ludden.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: The Senate's bill has been taking a hit in the blogosphere and on talk radio.

(Soundbite of radio program, "The Hugh Hewitt Show")

Mr. HUGH HEWITT (Radio Host, "The Hugh Hewitt Show"): Right now, it's just failure waiting to happen. Coming back for your calls - 1-800…

LUDDEN: This was conservative host Hugh Hewitt with one caller.

(Soundbite of radio program, "The Hugh Hewitt Show")

Mr. HEWITT: And the low skills will still come in and still be employed illegally. That's the problem.

Unidentified Man: Of course they will, and the vast majority of the people that we're going to give amnesty to are already low-skilled people.

LUDDEN: Numerous groups have urged members to flood Congress with phone calls. Carmen Mercer of the Minutemen group traveled to Capitol Hill and filed Web reports on the successful campaign.

Ms. CARMEN MERCER (Vice President, Minutemen Civil Defense Corps): We're just leaving Senator Feinstein's office, and there again, the phone - ringing like crazy…

LUDDEN: Mario Lopez of the Republican Congressional Hispanic Conference says the ratio of phone calls is overwhelmingly against the immigration bill.

Mr. MARIO LOPEZ (Executive Director, Republican Congressional Hispanic Conference): I would say it runs about 10 to one, and there are days when it can 20, 25 to one.

LUDDEN: To hear all that, you'd never guess what public opinion polls show.

Mr. FRANK NEWPORT (Editor in Chief, Gallup Poll): While these smaller interest groups who are passionate about their feelings say we represent the people, they don't.

LUDDEN: Frank Newport is editor in chief of the Gallup Poll. He says for several years, two-thirds of both Republicans and Democrats have consistently told pollsters they do support legalizing an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, provided they pay some penalty, as the Senate bill calls for. Newport says polls usually avoid the inflammatory word amnesty, but one conducted a year ago for CNN did use it.

Mr. NEWPORT: And they found the majority of Americans favored amnesty, even using that exact word.

LUDDEN: So why doesn't it sound like that in so much of the national debate? Samuel Popkin is a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego.

Professor SAMUEL POPKIN (Political Science, University of California at San Diego): When I hear a group really screaming, I hear a group that really doesn't like what they see about to happen - like gun control, like gay marriage, like on a number of issues, it's the small, losing side that is the most furious.

LUDDEN: William Gheen is furious and adamant he's not in the minority. Gheen heads Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, based in North Carolina. He cites a new poll by Rasmussen Reports that finds only 16 percent of people believe the current Senate bill will reduce illegal immigration - this despite the bill's wide-range of enforcement measures.

Mr. WILLIAM GHEEN (President, Americans for Legal Immigration PAC): Our current government has almost no enforcement credibility because they haven't been securing the border intentionally. They haven't been fining employers. The public is quite aware that big business around the U.S. Chamber of Commerce wants it this way, and has been using their influence on the executive branch to suspend the existing laws.

LUDDEN: Gheen dismisses another finding of the Rasmussen poll that also shows majority support for legalization. The range of poll results is contradictory, but analyst Samuel Popkin says the American public is deeply ambivalent.

Mr. POPKIN: Legalizing immigrants, for most people, it's the most practical, least bad solution.

LUDDEN: So which part of public opinion is a discerning politician to heed? Well, to add to the confusion, there's the very human trait of flat-out self-contradiction. One recent poll conducted for the conservative Eagle Forum found that, yes, 60 percent of Americans support legalizing illegal immigrants. But 52 percent said if their members of Congress voted for that, they'd be less likely to vote for them.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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