By JENNIFER AGIESTA
Poll after poll show that a majority of Americans favor allowing immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to remain here legally and, further, to apply for citizenship. But the level of support for changes in immigration laws varies significantly with the details.
Let's start with a basic measure: What to do about the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally? An April Associated Press-GfK poll found that 63 percent of Americans favor "providing a legal way for illegal immigrants already in the United States to become U.S. citizens." It found that 34 percent would oppose such a mechanism.
Immigration polls cited in this story:
• AP-GfK Poll
• NBC/WSJ Poll
• Washington Post/ABC News poll
Think of that finding as something of a baseline. There weren't any conditions attached to citizenship in this question, and no qualifications on the kinds of immigrants who would be covered. The question avoided phrases closely tied to one side of the political debate over immigration, such as "amnesty" or "a path to citizenship." The April finding was also about the same as the result in a January AP-GfK poll, suggesting public opinion on this basic question has mostly stabilized.
Since that poll, the Senate passed a bill remaking the nation's immigration system. This bill would offer eventual citizenship to many of those in the country illegally now, but also included provisions aimed at securing the border, requiring employers to verify their workers' legal status and allowing many more workers into the country legally.
In the House, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said lawmakers will consider separate bills for each aspect of the legislation, and each of those aspects garners a different, and sometimes lower, level of public support.
SMALL WORD CHANGES MEAN BIG DIFFERENCES
One way pollsters measure the impact of specific elements within a particular policy is to ask half the people taking a poll a question with one wording, and the other half an almost identical question, with only small changes. Each randomly selected half of the main sample is representative of the broader population, though with a larger margin of sampling error. The difference between the two results reflects the impact that change to the question has on public opinion. Take a look at two recent polls that have used half-samples to measure support for different facets of immigration law:
• Support for providing a "pathway to citizenship" climbs when conditions are attached. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 52 percent favor allowing those illegally in the U.S. the opportunity to eventually become citizens, while 65 percent would favor it if "they pay a fine, any back taxes, pass a security background check and take other required steps."
• Most favor boosting border security as outlined in the Senate's plan, but hearing about the costs of that effort diminishes support. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found 64 percent back upping the number of border agents by 20,000 and expanding fencing along the border with Mexico. When also told the plan carries a $46 billion price tag, however, support dips to 53 percent.
Regardless of their views on the details, however, most say new laws are just not in the cards. A Quinnipiac poll released earlier this month found 69 percent of registered voters think Republicans and Democrats in Congress won't be able to work together to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year.