June 7, 2007

Mixed Views on Immigration Bill

Democratic Leaders Face Growing Disapproval, Criticism on Iraq

Summary of Findings

The public is ambivalent about the immigration bill being debated by the Senate. Most Americans favor one of its key objectives, but the bill itself draws a mostly negative reaction from those who have heard about it. Just a third of those who have heard something about the bill favor it, while 41% are opposed, and a relatively large minority (26%) offers no opinion.

Yet one of the bill’s primary goals – to provide a way for people who are in this country illegally to gain legal citizenship under certain conditions – wins broad and bipartisan support. Overall, 63% of the public – and nearly identical numbers of Republicans, Democrats and independents – favor such an approach if illegal immigrants “pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs.”

The debate over immigration has focused in part on whether the bill currently before Congress amounts to a grant of amnesty for people who are in the U.S. illegally. In general, the public is less supportive of providing “amnesty” for illegal immigrants than it is of providing a way for illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. Even so, a majority of Americans (54%) say they favor amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country if they pass background checks and meet other conditions.

The way in which the issue is characterized has a significant effect on Republican views. While 62% of Republicans favor “providing a way for illegal immigrants currently in the country to gain legal citizenship,” support declines sharply when the concept of amnesty is raised. However, even when the policy is described as “providing amnesty” for illegal immigrants, about as many Republicans favor (47%) as oppose (48%) the idea.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted May 30-June 3 among 1,503 adults, finds a growing majority of Americans saying increased employer sanctions, as opposed to more border fences and patrols, can best reduce illegal immigration from Mexico. A 55% majority sees increased penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants as the most effective way to stem cross-border immigration, up from 49% a year ago. By comparison, just 25% say increasing the number of border patrol agents is the best solution, and even fewer (7%) see more border fences as the most effective solution.

The survey finds that Americans are less impressed now by the Democratic congressional leadership than when the party took control of Congress in January. While approval of the job Democratic leaders are doing has dipped only slightly – from 39% in January to 34% today – disapproval has grown substantially from 34% to 49%. Independents, in particular, express a much more negative opinion of Democratic congressional leaders. Fully 58% disapprove of their job performance, up from 40% in January.

Among Democrats, disapproval of Democratic leaders has approximately doubled since January (from 13% to 27%). Still, a solid majority of Democrats (58%) approve of the job the party’s congressional leaders are doing.

Democratic leaders in Congress also are facing criticism from both the right and the left for their handling of Iraq policy. Liberal Democrats are increasingly of the view that Democratic congressional leaders have not gone far enough in challenging President Bush’s Iraq policies, while most Republicans say they have gone too far in confronting the president over Iraq.

More generally, the proportion of Americans who favor removing troops from Iraq as soon as possible continues to increase. Overall, 56% favor a troop withdrawal as soon as possible – the most ever in a Pew Research Center survey – while 39% say the U.S. should keep troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized. In addition, public optimism about U.S. efforts to train Iraqi security forces so they can replace U.S. troops has slipped significantly – 42% believe the U.S. is making progress in this area while 36% believe it is losing ground. This has been an aspect of the Iraq effort where majorities felt that progress was being made.

Immigration Policy

Despite extensive press coverage of the immigration debate, only about three-in-ten Americans (31%) say they have heard a lot about the bill before Congress that would address illegal immigration. An additional 52% say they have heard a little about the bill, while 16% have heard nothing at all. In all, about four-in-ten (38%) have either heard nothing about the bill, or even if they have heard about it decline to express an opinion of the measure.

Among those with an opinion, opposition to the bill outweighs support, and this is particularly the case among the most attentive Americans. Those who have heard a lot about the bill oppose the legislation by 52%-34%; among those who have not heard as much, about as many favor the bill (32%) as oppose it (34%).

In general, the public is less supportive of providing amnesty for illegal immigrants than it is of providing a way for those immigrants to gain citizenship. Men and conservative Republicans, in particular, take a dim view of giving amnesty to illegal immigrants.

Fully 64% of men, and an identical proportion of conservative Republicans, favor providing illegal immigrants a way to become citizens by passing background checks and meeting other conditions. But just 50% of men, and 44% of conservative Republicans, favor providing amnesty to illegal immigrants under the same conditions.

College graduates also are less supportive of amnesty than of providing illegal immigrants a way to obtain citizenship. Even so, college graduates support providing amnesty for illegal immigrants by a wide margin (63%-30%). In contrast, 55% of those with a high school education or less favor providing citizenship to illegal immigrants if they meet certain conditions, and just 47% favor giving illegal immigrants amnesty.

Older Americans are decidedly more skeptical than young people of providing a path to citizenship, or amnesty, to illegal immigrants. A narrow majority of those ages 65 and older (52%) favor providing a way for illegal immigrants to become citizens, while just 42% favor amnesty. By contrast, those who are under age 30 overwhelmingly support both alternatives.

Sense of Urgency

While the public is divided over the immigration bill currently before Congress, there is a widespread belief that the president and Congress need to act on the issue this year. Half of the public says that it is essential for the president and Congress to revise immigration laws this year; 37% say they need to do it in the next few years; and just 7% believe immigration laws do not need changing.

On balance, both opponents and supporters of the immigration bill say it is essential that the president and Congress act this year to revise the laws. About half of those who oppose the current bill (51%), and 57% of the bill’s supporters, say action to revise immigration laws is essential this year. Just 12% of those who oppose the current bill before Congress are of the view that immigration laws do not need changing.

People who believe immigration reform is needed cite an array of concerns about illegal immigration. A plurality (34%) says their biggest concern is that illegal immigration hurts American jobs, 20% say illegal immigration increases the risk of terrorism, and 14% say it contributes to crime. Somewhat fewer (10%) express concern that illegal immigration “hurts American customs and its way of life.”

For Democrats, independents and moderate and liberal Republicans, jobs surpass terrorism as illegal immigration concerns. But nearly as many conservative Republicans cite terrorism as jobs as their biggest concern about illegal immigration (28% jobs, 24% terrorism).

Views of Progress in Iraq

Views of how things are going in Iraq remain mostly negative – just 34% see the U.S. military effort going very or fairly well, while 61% say things are not going well.

On most specific aspects of the U.S. effort, evaluations have held fairly steady since February of this year. But over a longer period, views of whether the U.S. is making progress, or losing ground, in achieving its objectives in Iraq have turned increasingly negative.

A year ago, 55% said the U.S. was making progress in establishing democracy in Iraq while 35% said the U.S. was losing ground. Currently, a 47% plurality says the U.S. is losing ground in this area compared with 39% who see progress being made.

And in the past few months alone, there has been increasing pessimism about whether the U.S. is making progress in training Iraqi security forces so they can replace U.S. troops. As recently as February, a narrow majority (51%) said the U.S. was making progress in this effort, while 34% felt the U.S. was losing ground. Currently, opinion is divided over whether the U.S. is making progress (42%) or losing ground (36%) in training the Iraqi forces so they can replace U.S. troops.

In two other areas, however, a pattern of growing skepticism has ebbed. The share of Americans who feel the U.S. is losing ground in its efforts to prevent a civil war between the various ethnic and religious groups in Iraq has fallen from a high of 68% in February to 60% today. And the share who believes the U.S. is losing ground in its efforts to defeat the insurgents militarily has fallen from a high of 55% in February to 50% today. In both cases, however, skepticism continues to outweigh optimism by substantial margins.

What to Do in Iraq?

By increasingly wide margins, Americans say they want to see U.S. troops return from Iraq as soon as possible, as opposed to staying until the situation there has stabilized. Currently, 56% favor bringing the troops home as soon as possible – the most ever in a Pew survey – while 39% say troops should stay until things are stable. The percent saying the troops should come home soon is up two points since April, and 11 points since June 2006.

This gradual shift in the balance of public opinion has occurred across the political spectrum, and among Americans of all walks of life. While a majority of Republicans continue to favor maintaining U.S. forces in Iraq, the share who wants to see the troops return as soon as possible now stands at 29%, up from 23% a year ago. Among Democrats, 75% favor bringing the troops home today, up from 64% a year ago. And the balance of opinion among independents has flipped – in June 2006, a narrow majority (52%) favored keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, but now most independents (56%) support a troop withdrawal.

Support for a quick return of U.S. troops is up among both men and women, though there remains a substantial gender gap. Women, by two-to-one, want to see the troops brought home as soon as possible (63%-31%). Men are divided, with 49% favoring bringing the troops home and 46% favoring a continued presence in Iraq. College graduates are far more likely to favor staying in Iraq than are Americans who have not attended college, and the education gap has not changed much over the past year.

White evangelical Protestants are divided about whether U.S. troops should be brought home, which represents a substantial shift in the balance of opinion over the past year. In June 2006, white evangelicals favored keeping U.S. troops in Iraq until the situation is stabilized by a margin of 59% to 38%. Currently, 45% of white evangelicals say U.S. troops should stay until the situation is stable, while 49% want to see the troops return home soon.

Timetables and Troop Morale

As has consistently been the case over the past year, a majority of Americans (58%) favor setting a timetable for when troops will be withdrawn from Iraq; 35% oppose setting a timetable. But Americans are evenly split on how efforts to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq might affect the morale of U.S. forces. Almost equal numbers believe that these efforts hurt morale (32%), help morale (31%), or have no effect (29%) on the morale of the troops.

In general, younger Americans, particularly those under age 30, are the least likely to believe that withdrawal efforts hurt morale; just 24% take this view. By comparison, Americans ages 50 to 64 on balance say that efforts to set a timetable for withdrawal do more to hurt than help troop morale (by 40%-28%).

Among those who support setting a timetable for troop withdrawal, 44% believe that efforts to do so help troop morale, 22% believe they hurt morale, and 28% see them having no effect. Most opponents of a timetable (51%) say the effort to set a timetable hurts troop morale, while 30% say the discussion of timetables does not affect the troops, and 11% say it helps morale.

As expected, there is a wide partisan gap in views about whether efforts to set a troop withdrawal timetable hurt or help troop morale. Nearly half of Republicans (46%) say that discussion of a timetable hurts morale, while 23% say it helps. Among Democrats, 40% see the timetable debate as having a positive effect on troop morale, while 25% say it hurts morale. However, these differences are far smaller than the partisan differences over whether to set a timetable for a troop withdrawal. By greater than four-to-one (75%-18%), Democrats favor setting a timetable for when the troops will be withdrawn; by roughly two-to-one (62%-34%), Republicans oppose this idea.

Democrats Not Challenging Bush Enough

Democratic leaders in Congress are facing criticism of their handling of the war in Iraq from both the left and the right. Overall, 41% of Americans think Democratic leaders are not going far enough in challenging the president on his Iraq policies, while 22% say they are going too far. Just a quarter believe Democratic leaders are handling the situation about right.

Six-in-ten Democrats think their leaders have not gone far enough in challenging Bush on Iraq, a view shared by 42% of independents. Most Republicans (54%) say that Democratic leaders are going too far in challenging Bush’s policies.

For the most part, opinions of how the Democrats are handling the Iraq issue have not changed much since March. However, frustration among liberal Democrats has increased substantially. Fully 68% of liberal Democrats say that Democratic leaders are not challenging the president enough when it comes to Iraq – up 12 percentage points since March. By comparison, 54% of conservative and moderate Democrats agree, down slightly from 59% three months ago.

Approval of Democratic Leaders

More people express an opinion about the performance of Democratic leaders than did so in January, and those views have turned much more negative.

Overall, 34% say they approve of the job Democratic congressional leaders are doing, while 49% disapprove. In January, the approval figure was modestly higher (39%), while the disapproval mark was much much lower (34%). The percentage not offering an opinion has declined since January, from 27% to 17%.

Since January, disapproval of Democratic congressional leaders has increased by 18 points among independents, and the balance of opinion has shifted dramatically. Currently, more than twice as many independents disapprove of the Democratic leaders’s job performance as approve (58% vs. 26%); in January, the gap was much more narrow (40% disapprove, 31% approve). Roughly a quarter of Democrats (27%) disapprove of Democratic leaders’ job performance, up from 13% in January.

The public is divided in opinions about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s job performance – 36% approve, 33% disapprove, and 31% offer no opinion. Half of Democrats approve of the way Pelosi is handling her job, compared with 36% of independents, and 21% of Republicans.

Nearly Half See U.S. Responsibility in Darfur

As world leaders gather in Germany for the annual G-8 meeting to discuss a variety of issues including the Darfur situation, just under half of Americans (49%) believe the U.S. has a responsibility to do something about the ethnic genocide in this region of Sudan. Another 34% say the United States does not have this responsibility, while 17% have no opinion. These figures are relatively unchanged from last December.

At the same time, Americans have become more wary of the idea of sending U.S. troops to Darfur as part of a multinational force to help end the ethnic genocide there. In December 2006, 53% of the public favored the use of U.S. troops; today, 45% approves of this idea. Nearly four-in-ten Americans have consistently opposed to using U.S. troops to help end the humanitarian crisis (38% in December vs. 37% now). The percentage not offering an opinion has doubled since December (from 9% to 18%).

A separate Pew Research Center survey finds that many Americans believe the situation in Darfur is not receiving enough coverage in the media. Fully 49% say there is too little reporting on Darfur, more than for any other news story tested.1 Reflecting this, fewer than a quarter of Americans (22%) say they have read or heard a lot about ethnic violence in Sudan. Those who have read or heard a lot about the conflict are significantly more likely to believe the United States has a responsibility to do something about the ethnic genocide in Sudan. Nearly three-quarters of those who have been tracking the Darfur situation (72%) feel an obligation on the part of the United States to do something there.

Many more college graduates (62%) than those with less formal education say the United States has a responsibility to do something about the ethnic genocide in Darfur. Comparable majorities of Republicans (52%), independents (50%) and Democrats (49%) agree that the U.S. has an obligation to act in Sudan.

In March 1999, a similar proportion of Americans (47%) felt the U.S. had a responsibility to do something about the fighting between ethnic groups in the Serbian province of Kosovo, but the share who felt this was not an American responsibility was substantially higher then (46%) than it is today. During the Bosnian civil war in June 1995, far fewer – just 30% – believed the U.S. had a responsibility to do something about fighting between Serbs and Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia. In that period, opinion was resolutely against the United States assuming this responsibility (64%).

Cite this publication: “Mixed Views on Immigration Bill.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (June 7, 2007) http://www.people-press.org/2007/06/07/mixed-views-on-immigration-bill/, accessed on July 22, 2014.

  1. See the Pew Research Center’s Weekly News Interest Index Report for June 7, 2007.