Two lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Arizona’s new immigration law – and the promise of more to come – represent the latest in a surge of outrage over the first-of-its-kind measure to crack down on illegal immigration. The lawsuits follow high-profile protests, calls for boycotts, and a travel advisory from Mexico urging its citizens to steer clear of Arizona.
But findings from three opinion polls released in the past two days seem to counter the anger and outrage being expressed in and about Arizona's move:
• A Gallup poll concludes that more than three-quarters of Americans have heard about Arizona's new immigration law, and of these, 51 percent say they favor it and 39 percent oppose it.
• An online Angus Global Monitor poll found 71 percent of respondents in favor of requiring state and local police to determine a person's residency status if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the person is an illegal immigrant, as well as arresting people who are unable to provide documentation to prove they are in the US legally. Also, 53 percent of respondents would make it a crime to hire day laborers off the street.
• A Zogby Interactive poll of 2,108 adults conducted from April 16-19 found broad support for major immigration reform and immigration regulations that are more restrictive. “79 percent do not agree that illegal aliens are entitled to the same rights and basic freedoms as US citizens,” said the poll.
These results reflect another kind of anger over illegal immigration, says Jonette Christian, founder of Mainers for Immigration Reform. "The people are angry and confused – but they're not totally out to lunch," she says. "They know that something really big and bad has been happening to their country – and [they] never asked for it."
The immigration polls' findings should be considered carefully, observers say, because the glaring spotlight on complex issues like Arizona's immigration law can oversimplify and remove important dimensions from them.
“Polling has limited value in determining how to address complex problems,” says Ben Johnson, director of the American Immigration Council. “Very few people understand the complexities of immigration law, and there is a lot of confusion about how and why people are here illegally.”
It doesn’t surprise Mr. Johnson that a majority of people would support "making it a crime to transport someone who is an illegal immigrant."
“That's already against the law,” he says. “The deeper questions are whether people are OK with citizens and legal residents being stopped by police and asked to prove their status, and how far police can go to creating the reasonable suspicion.”
Immigrant rights groups say that what is “legal” and what is “right” are often at odds in ways that public opinion surveys and news reports tend to overlook. “A law being popular or supported by the majority does not mean that is morally correct,” says Randy Ertll, executive director of El Centro de Accion Social in Pasadena, Calif.
The current economic climate could also be tilting poll responses, say political scientists.
“These polls are correct but seem to reflect the downturn in the economy,” says Barbara O’Connor, director of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. “History has a way of showing that when times are tough, people lash out more strongly against what they feel is beyond their control – in this case, immigrants.”
Government attitudes also come into play, says Joe Nevins, a political scientist and immigration specialist at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "A combination of an economic recession, and, more important, a long-term campaign by the federal government to teach the public that unauthorized immigration is a crime has made a law-and-order approach to matters of unauthorized migration a no-brainer for most," he says.
But the results of these polls miss the point, says Lara Brown, a political scientist at Villanova University. "There is more consensus on this topic among Americans than most politicians seem to believe."
“The majority of Americans are not anti-immigrant, pro-illegals, or in favor of a police state,” Brown says. “Instead, they want government to uphold the rule of law, and they want America to continue to be a country that stands by its long heritage of welcoming those, as the inscription on the Statute of Liberty reads, who are 'yearning to breathe free.' The real story is that.“