Standing Up For the 14%

There’s not a lot new in the numbers on immigration policy in a new NBC/Wall Street Journal survey just out, but it does nicely emphasize the disconnect between the public and the House Republicans who may ultimately decide the fate of legislation on the subject:

Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they favor giving citizenship to those who came here illegally and now hold jobs. Support jumped to 76% for a plan that required immigrants to pay fines, back taxes and pass a security check, among other measures, to gain citizenship. Bipartisan legislation now being written in the Senate could open a pathway to citizenship with similar requirements.

People familiar with a Senate plan to rewrite immigration laws have said it would allow immigrants to apply for permanent legal residency, also known as a green card, only if border-security targets and other requirements have been met—a process expected to take about 10 years.

But the poll found strong support for a faster timeline, with 51% saying illegal immigrants with jobs should gain citizenship after five years. An additional 18% backed immediate citizenship. Some 12% said citizenship should be granted after 10 years. Only 14% said those immigrants should never be eligible for citizenship.

That’s right: only 14% share the hardcore opposition to “amnesty” that is so common among conservative activists, and was embraced by the GOP’s 2012 presidential nominee (his toxic “self-deportation” rhetoric was actually intended to represent a more humane alternative to the put-’em-in-boxcars-and-ship-’em-south default drive). But even the Republican rank-and-file are RINOs when it comes to this issue:

A slight majority of Republican respondents oppose this path, possibly foreshadowing the resistance which any comprehensive immigration reform bill might receive, especially in the GOP controlled House of Representatives.

But when Republicans hear that a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants includes paying fines and back taxes, almost three-quarters of them support the idea.

Moreover, even though the public has a very poor assessment of the strength of border enforcement, there’s no sign Americans at large would make their support for a path to citizenship contingent on “hard triggers” linking the latter to the former.

Add in the fact that support for comprehensive reform skyrockets about highly prized Latino voters, and you have a dramatic illustration of the ideological character of GOP sentiment on immigration. It’s not smart, it’s not popular, but it’s supposedly a matter of conservative principle, and we’ll soon see House nativists (and some in the Senate as well) get up on their hind legs and roar.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.