How We View Undocumented Immigrants
Polls show even state’s Republican voters overwhelmingly oppose current policies.
Between 2012 and 2018, the Marquette Law School poll periodically asked Wisconsin voters for their “view about undocumented immigrants who are currently working in the U.S.” The respondents could choose one of three answers: The immigrants should be
- allowed to stay in their jobs and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship, or
- allowed to stay in their jobs only as temporary guest workers, but not to apply for U.S. citizenship, or
- required to leave their jobs and leave the U.S.
Over the years, more than 15,000 state residents answered this question. The chart below shows the number picking each of the three options. (The small number who either refused to answer or said they didn’t know are not included.)
Sixty percent of those polled would let undocumented immigrants stay in the United States and apply for citizenship. Another 20 percent would allow them to stay but only as guest workers. The remaining 20 percent would require the undocumented immigrants to leave their jobs and the United States.
In other words, 80 percent of the voters polled would allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States. The current official US policy, of forcing undocumented immigrants to leave the country, is only supported by 20 percent of Wisconsinites.
The next chart shows the results by party preference the last time this question was asked, in October 2018. Not surprisingly, Democrats overwhelmingly favor letting undocumented immigrants stay and apply for citizenship. More surprising are the results from Republicans. Half of them would allow the immigrants to stay and only a quarter would send them packing. (These numbers include just the self-described Republicans; independents who leaned Republican are counted as independents.)
The next graph shows the answers from self-declared Republicans on a sample of polls over time. Generally, a plurality supported a route to citizenship, but the results jump around from poll to poll.
By contrast, Democrats views are much more consistent over time, as reflected in the graph below. The start the period highly favorable to letting the undocumented immigrants become citizens and grow more so over time.
Shortly before the presidential election—in September 2016—the poll asked voters, “What do you think Donald Trump‘s position is on undocumented immigrants?” As the next chart shows 40 percent of Republicans mis-identified Trump’s policy—telling the pollster he would allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the US either on a path to citizenship or as guest workers. By contrast, 90 percent of Democrats correctly identified Trump’s policy—that the undocumented immigrants would be forced to leave.
This appears to be an example of cognitive dissonance—the clash of beliefs and evidence. Republicans have shown enormous loyalty to President Trump. At the same time, it appears that many Republicans don’t agree with him on the need to expel undocumented immigrants. One way to handle this conflict is to deny the evidence. Cognitive dissonance may also account for the variability over time of Republicans’ answers. Tales of cruelty—like family separations—may compete with loyalty to the president.
In March of 2018, the poll asked what should be done with undocumented immigrants who came to the US as children. As the next graph shows, the response was overwhelming, with 80 percent of Republicans in favor of allowing them to stay and apply for citizenship.
The popularity of protecting immigrants brought in as children creates a quandary for the Trump administration, as the New York Times’ Linda Greenhouse points out. The administration wants to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) but doesn’t want to take responsibility for that decision. Instead it argues that the policy is illegal, and its hands are tied.
Are Wisconsin voters—including Republicans—unique in their wish to give undocumented immigrants options to leaving the US? It appears not. For example, the following graph summarizes the results of a 2018 poll the website FiveThirtyEight did using Survey Monkey. A clear majority favors allowing the immigrants to apply for legal status over being deported.
Compared to other states, Wisconsin has relatively few undocumented immigrants—an estimated 86,000 or 1.5 percent of the state’s population. This compares to 3.4 percent nationwide and 7.7 percent in California. As widely noted, with the aging of Wisconsin’s native population, as well as the state’s slow growth, these immigrants help fill critical niches. As Bruce Murphy noted in a recent article for Urban Milwaukee, the growth of immigrants, including those without papers, has been good for Milwaukee. Similarly, a Journal Sentinel article by David Haynes asking whether Wisconsin needs more immigrants ended up concluding that more immigrants would be good for Wisconsin. Likewise, a recent article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that Wisconsin dairy farmers are dependent on immigrants.
In June, the US House passed HR 8, the American Dream and Promise Act of 2019. It mainly aims to protect immigrants who were brought to the United States as children by giving them a path to permanent residency. It would also give protections to immigrants whose home country is dangerous. With 232 Democratic sponsors, including all three Wisconsin representatives, it has received no action in the US Senate, despite what the polls say about support among Republicans.
So far as I can tell, no legislation has been introduced dealing with undocumented immigrants who do not fall into one of these two categories. Considering what the polls say about public sentiment, the continued reluctance to propose solutions seems somewhat surprising. Even if the Senate were to relent and pass HR 8, most undocumented immigrants would still be left in limbo.
A June NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll listed 20 proposals and asked people to indicate whether they were good ideas or bad ideas. The graph below shows the results for the three proposals related to undocumented immigrants.
It is puzzling, therefore, why Democrats running for President seem to ignore the first proposal while advocating for the latter two.