2002 December 17 Tuesday
Elite Populace Gap On Immigration Issues

The Center for Immigration Studies has released a new report demonstrating the gap between elite and popular opinion on immigration.

While it has long been suspected that public and elite opinion differ on the issue of immigration, a new poll provides the most compelling evidence yet that there is an enormous gap between the American people and "opinion leaders" on the issue. The survey also suggests that the gap between the public and elites has actually widened since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

This Backgrounder is based on the findings of a recent national poll conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations in May through July of this year. The Council is a non-profit policy organization that sponsors polls and events on a host of foreign policy issues. The Council has a long tradition of polling to find differences between the public and opinion leaders.

The polling of the public was based on 2,800 telephone interviews from across the nation. The council also surveyed nearly 400 opinion leaders, including members of Congress, the administration, and leaders of church groups, business executives, union leaders, journalists, academics, and leaders of major interest groups. (The full results of the survey can be found at http://www.worldviews.org/detailreports/usreport/html/ch5s5.html) This Backgrounder is the first detailed examination of the poll’s results on the issue of immigration.

  • The results of the survey indicate that the gap between the opinions of the American people on immigration and those of their leaders is enormous. The poll found that 60 percent of the public regards the present level of immigration to be a "critical threat to the vital interests of the United States," compared to only 14 percent of the nation’s leadership – a 46 percentage point gap.
  • The current gap is even wider than that found in 1998, when 55 percent of the public viewed immigration as a "critical threat," compared to 18 percent of opinion leaders – a 37 percentage point gap.
  • The poll results indicate that there is no other foreign policy-related issue on which the American people and their leaders disagreed more profoundly than immigration. Even on such divisive issues as globalization or strengthening the United Nations, the public and the elite are much closer together than they are on immigration.
  • When asked a specific question about whether legal immigration should be reduced, kept the same, or increased, 55 percent of the public said it should be reduced, and 27 percent said it should remain the same. In contrast, only 18 percent of opinion leaders said it should be reduced and 60 percent said it should remain the same. There was no other issue-specific question on which the public and elites differed more widely.
  • The enormous difference between elite and public opinion can also be seen on the issue of illegal immigration. The survey found that 70 percent of the public said that reducing illegal immigration should be a "very important" foreign-policy goal of the United States, compared to only 22 percent of elites.

  • Also with respect to illegal immigration, when the public was asked to rank the biggest foreign policy problems, the public ranked illegal immigration sixth, while elites ranked it 26th.
  • The very large difference between elite and public opinion explains the current political stalemate on immigration. For example, supporters of an amnesty for illegal immigrants have broad elite support ranging from religious to business and union leaders. Normally elite support of this kind would lead to policy changes, but on this issue public opposition is so strong that it creates a political stalemate.
  • Continued deep public dissatisfaction with current immigration policy indicates that candidates or political parties that advocate a reduction in immigration might reap a significant political benefit. This is especially true because it could be marketed as "anti-elite" and more in sync with the American people, a message that has traditionally been well received by voters.
  • President Bush’s efforts to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants appear to be hurting him politically. While 53 percent of the public said his handling of foreign policy overall was excellent or good, on immigration only 27 percent said his handling of immigration was good or excellent; moreover, 70 percent rated Bush as poor or fair on immigration. the lowest rating he received on any foreign policy-related issue.

For many years the Chicago Council has polled to find differences between the public and "opinion leaders." Harris Interactive conducted the poll for the Council. The polling of the public included 2,862 telephone interviews from a scientific sampling of the nation in June. In addition, 397 telephone interviews were conducted with opinion leaders between May and July of this year. Included in the survey of leaders were: top executives of the Fortune 1000 corporations; presidents of the largest labor unions; TV and radio news directors, network newscasters, newspaper editors and columnists; leaders of all religious faiths, chosen proportionate to the number of Americans who worship in each; presidents of large special interest groups and think tanks with an emphasis on foreign policy matters; presidents and faculty of universities; members of the U.S. House and Senate; and assistant secretaries and other senior staff in the Administration. In this Backgrounder, the terms "elite" and "leaders" are used synonymously with "opinion leaders."

It is a well established fact in public opinion polling that most Americans for nearly all of the last quarter century have desired reductions in legal and illegal immigration. However, in general, federal lawmakers have moved in the opposite direction of their constituents’ desires, continually raising the numerical level of legal immigration and failing to take steps to reduce illegal migration.

Business interests and an incredibly naive hope of winning the Hispanic vote push the Republican Party leaders toward favoring more immigration. Ethnic groups elites who want to make their groups a larger portion of the US population plus the rather more accurate expectation that the Democrats can get most of the votes of immigrants push the Democrats to favor immigration. What is curious about the position of the Democratic Party is that it is taking a position that is against the economic interests of its members. Lower income Democrats are most severely impacted by competition from unskilled and low-skilled immigrant labor. Blacks are the most solidly Democratic of any ethnic group in America and their lower average incomes puts them most directly in competition with immigrants. Yet the Democratic Party betrays their interests on this issue.

Will a political stalemate allow the continuing rise of both legal and illegal immigration? The populists have a few ways forward. One battleground would be the initiative process on state ballots. There are a number of state ballot initiative ideas that could make a difference:

  • Initiatives in California and other border states with Mexico to build a large barrier along the entire length of the border.
  • Initiatives to command state and local police to arrest and hold illegal immigrants for deportation.
  • Initiatives to require proof of legal residence for bank accounts, driver's licenses, and other services, permits, and licenses.
  • Initiatives which required all state and local government employees to report illegal aliens that they come into contact with.
  • Initiatives to create state agencies to process illegal aliens into federal custody for deportation. Add an additional element to such initiatives where private citizens would be given a reward for turning in illegal aliens.
  • Initiatives that add citizenship requirements for many state and local jobs that may not now require them (could have exceptions for a small number highly skilled occupations).
  • Initiatives to outlaw in-state tuition for non-citizens.

Basically, the states could do many of the functions that the federal government is failing to do. If the initiative process met with success then some politicians would choose to run on immigration positions that align more closely with the wishes of the majority of US citizens.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 December 17 12:02 PM  Immigration Elites Versus Masses

Paul Cella said at December 19, 2002 3:43 AM:

This is, as polls go, an absolutely devastating one. Is there public policy debate in this country more impoverished by censorship and intellectual thuggery than immigration?

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