Do Republicans Support Immigration Reform? Depends How You Ask Them

Republicans are wary about allowing undocumented immigrants to eventually attain citizenship, according to a poll released Wednesday, even while the rest of the country largely supports the idea.

According to the Washington Post-ABC News poll, 57 percent of registered voters surveyed said they support a “path to citizenship for illegal immigrants” while 40 percent said they opposed such a policy. But the partisan divide was stark: 73 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents backed citizenship versus just 35 percent of Republicans. And a full 41 percent of Republicans said they “strongly oppose” the idea. The poll interviewed 1,014 adults and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 points.As the Post survey indicates, the bulk of polling so far suggests that Democrats are on relatively solid ground with the general public in pushing for immigration reform that includes citizenship provisions. But the Republican response has been tougher to game out and while GOP elites are lining up more and more behind reform, a conservative revolt could scare them out of backing a final bill.

The range of results seem to depend in part on the wording of the question: a Brookings Institute/PRRI poll last month found majority support for citizenship among Republicans (53 percent) and a variety of GOP-leaning demographics like white evangelicals, but asked respondents in the context of whether they preferred the earned citizenship approach to a policy of mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. When given an additional option for reform that would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants without eventual citizenship, few sounded interested — only 13 percent of Democrats and 14 percent of Republicans and independents said they favored this choice out of the three.

By contrast, a poll also last month by Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of Republicans favored granting some legal status to the undocumented population, but only 38 percent thought this new status should include a path to citizenship. In that case, Pew asked respondents whether they thought “there should be a way for those who meet certain requirements to stay in the country legally” or whether “they should not be allowed to stay in the country legally,” avoiding the harsher deportation language used by Brookings.

The same poll also found Republicans far more likely to agree with a statement describing immigrants of all stripes as a “burden” then as people who “strengthen the country.” Among overall respondents, 71 percent favored legal status of some kind, and 43 percent said reform should include citizenship.

Adding to the confusion is that even Republican politicians who favor eventual citizenship for portions of the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants don’t like to call it that. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) studiously avoids the phrase and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) prefers to describe his plan as a path to a green card, which is a prerequisite to citizenship. House members working on a bipartisan bill have indicated that they’re likely to compromise on the issue by letting some undocumented immigrants eventually become citizens but without a “special path to citizenship” that’s available only to them and not to immigrants who applied for visas through the usual legal channels.