Surprise! Voters Favor Work-Permit Immigration Reform

Posted April 6, 2005 at 4:14pm

Despite massive agitation for a restrictionist immigration policy, a new poll shows surprising support for proposals to allow foreigners and illegal immigrants to obtain work permits and earn their way to citizenship. [IMGCAP(1)]

The poll, by GOP pollster Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lake, ought to encourage President Bush to push for immigration reform against concerted opposition from radio talk show hosts and some GOP conservatives who denounce his work-permit proposals as “amnesty for law-breakers.”

The poll, conducted for the pro-reform National Immigration Forum and the American Immigration Lawyers Association, shows that Americans would support reforms even more liberal than Bush’s — the kind expected to be jointly proposed soon by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Bush has proposed that foreigners and illegal immigrants be allowed to obtain permits to work legally in the United States, but has left it unclear whether they would have to return to their home countries when the permits expired.

Kennedy and McCain are proposing that, after six years of legal work, law-abiding immigrants who pay a “fine” and undergo a background check would be eligible for permanent resident status (a “green card”) and eventual citizenship.

Their proposal also speeds up processing of the huge backlog of applications for normal immigration so that work-permit holders (including former “illegals”) would not gain an advantage over those waiting in line.

The Goeas-Lake poll showed that, even after hearing strong arguments against the Kennedy-McCain reforms, 77 percent of likely voters would favor their proposal.

At the moment, political momentum on the immigration issue seems to lie with GOP restrictionists, led by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), and those who think that stricter enforcement should precede any reform.

On Feb. 10, the House voted 261-161 to pass a measure (now part of the Iraq supplemental appropriation) that establishes federal standards for state drivers’ licenses that are designed to deny them to illegal immigrants.

The measure, backed by House Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), also, in the name of homeland security, restricts the ability of foreigners to gain humanitarian asylum in the United States.

Bush has been gratifyingly and even eloquently pro-immigration in his public statements, but he also needs conservative support to pass Social Security reform, which may delay or even stop his push for immigration reform.

Part of the equation, too, is a loud claque of radio and TV talk show hosts who rail against an “invasion” of foreigners flooding across “porous” U.S. borders in flagrant violation of the law. The agitation is accompanied by extensive publicity for the Arizona “Minuteman” movement, which was launched to block immigrants from Mexico. Bush has denounced such “vigilante” activity.

Actually, anti-immigrationists have a point: There is an invasion of illegal immigration across the U.S. borders, estimated at about 400,000 people a year. Roughly 11 million illegals live in the United States. And the U.S. government, despite bolstered border security and increases in the number of immigration agents, has been unable to stem the tide.

The question becomes: What should we do about it, especially when immigrants overwhelmingly arrive to take menial jobs that Americans won’t do and which employers are willing to hire them for?

The Bush approach, so far not spelled out in actual legislation, is to allow foreigners and illegals in the United States to obtain temporary work permits.

At a press conference with Mexican President Vicente Fox on March 8, Bush went out of his way to say, “I oppose amnesty, placing undocumented workers on the automatic path to citizenship.”

McCain and Kennedy are drafting legislation that McCain hopes the administration will back and that employer groups and labor unions will endorse, creating a powerful counterweight to the restrictionists.

The bill will contain enhanced enforcement measures, including an electronic verification system for work permits, a limit on the number of worker permits that matches current flows of illegals, labor protections and provisions for workers to obtain green cards if they pay a fine likely to be more than $1,500.

According to the Goeas-Lake poll, immigration is not among the top concerns of the public. While only 9 percent of voters favor increasing the number of legal immigrants in the United States, 86 percent also agree that immigrants who work, pay taxes and learn English should have a way to become citizens.

In addition, 91 percent agreed that “we need a controlled immigration system that would replace illegal immigration flow with a legal immigration flow.”

Significant majorities said they’d be less likely to support a McCain-Kennedy-style bill if told it was an “amnesty,” if it lowered U.S. wages or if it encouraged more illegal immigration. Still, after hearing arguments on both sides, 77 percent favored the reforms.

One other argument favors regularizing immigration: It would free up police and immigration authorities to hunt criminals and terrorists, instead of chasing millions of workers who are ready, willing and able.