Polls, Interest Groups Disagree on Immigration Bill 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.
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Polls, Interest Groups Disagree on Immigration Bill

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Polls, Interest Groups Disagree on Immigration Bill

Polls, Interest Groups Disagree on Immigration Bill

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

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

WOLF BLITZER: 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.

BILL RICHARDSON: You don't immediately get an amnesty. You don't immediately get citizenship. It's a process that takes about 13 years.

INSKEEP: 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.

JOE BIDEN: 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: 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")

HUGH HEWITT: 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")

HEWITT: 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.

CARMEN MERCER: We're just leaving Senator Feinstein's office and there again, the phones are ringing like crazy...

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

MARIO LOPEZ: I would say it runs about 10 to one, and there are days when it can be 20, 25 to one.

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

FRANK NEWPORT: 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.

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.

SAMUEL POPKIN: 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.

WILLIAM GHEEN: 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.

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

LUDDEN: Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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