Wash. Times Conjurs a Silent Majority on Immigration

In a piece about Monday's nationwide protests by immigrants demanding legal status and citizenship, the Washington Times provides weak support for some "strong" assertions.

Amid the swarm of stories dissecting Monday’s nationwide protests by immigrants demanding legal status and citizenship, the first few paragraphs of a Washington Times piece struck us as a little off.

“Democrats on Capitol Hill favoring citizenship for illegal aliens say they have been buoyed by the massive rallies across the country, but opponents of amnesty warn that they will ultimately backfire,” the Times began. The paper later turned to exactly one ‘opponent of amnesty’ warning of such a dire consequence — Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado, the man whom the Washington Post describes as “the firebrand leader of the movement to crack down on illegal immigration” and whom USA Today says is so worked up about the issue that he “is considering a dark-horse run for the White House in 2008 as a way to highlight his concerns.”

The Times’ Unsupported Assertion Number Two, appearing in paragraph number two, was considerably more complex: “The gatherings have given backing to lawmakers who want to give a direct path to citizenship for aliens even though polls show most American voters strongly oppose what many call ‘amnesty.’” (The emphasis is ours.)

Since the Times didn’t offer any evidence to support that sweeping statement, we tried, without much luck, to find some ourselves.

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, the Post reported today, “found that 63 percent of those surveyed backed letting immigrants who have lived in the country a certain number of years apply for legal status and eventually become citizens.” A majority of Democrats, independents and Republicans supported that notion, in line with the bipartisan immigration compromise that stalled in the Senate last week.

Meanwhile, “only 14 percent favored a plan to let illegal immigrants work for a limited number of years before having to return to their home countries,” while a mere “20 percent said illegal immigrants should be declared felons and offered no temporary work program, a stand that corresponds with the legislation approved by the House.”

Next stop on our search for evidence of ‘strong’ opposition was a recent Time poll in which Americans overwhelmingly voted to deny illegal immigrants government services. But, as the magazine reported, “Rather than expel illegal immigrants from the country, more than three-quarters of those polled (78 percent) favored allowing citizenship for those who are already here, if they have a job, demonstrate proficiency in English and pay their taxes.”

Not much fire-breathing there. In fact, the best argument to support the Times’ thesis among the five major surveys we examined was an AP-Ipsos poll in which 41 percent of respondents opposed “offering any kind of legal status” to illegal immigrant workers — while 56 percent agreed those immigrants should be allowed to obtain temporary worker status so they can stay in the country. That’s hardly united opposition.

When it comes to the immigration debate, what Americans truly “strongly oppose” is keeping a broken system as is, with eight in 10 telling USA Today in its new poll that illegal immigration is “out of control.”

But look closely enough at the various poll results, and you’ll find, as we did, that the real story here is the public’s ambivalence.

In a recent report entitled “America’s Immigration Quandary,” the Pew Research Center and Pew Hispanic Center found the public evenly divided about what to do with illegal immigrants: 32 percent thought they should stay permanently, another 32 percent believed they should be allowed to stay as temporary workers if they left eventually, and 27 percent said all illegal immigrants should be forced to leave. A growing number believe “immigrants are a burden to the country,” Pew reported, but 65 percent said that immigrants “mostly take jobs that Americans do not want,” and 80 percent now describe Latin American immigrants as very hard-working — compared with just 63 percent in 1997. The more Americans interact with immigrants, the Pew paper suggested, the more they like them.

USA Today seemed equally perplexed by the contradictions revealed in its poll, as “a majority of those surveyed want to make it a crime for foreigners to immigrate illegally to the USA and for Americans to help those illegal immigrants once they arrive,” yet 63 percent “say there should be a way for illegal immigrants to stay here and become citizens if they meet certain requirements.”

Said Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup Poll: “The same problems that bedevil Congress in trying to figure out how to handle immigration are bedeviling the American psyche and the American public in trying to deal with it.”

Before marring its pages with another blithe analysis of immigration, the Washington Times might like to consider calling Mr. Newport.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.