Vast majority of public supports a legalization program for unauthorized immigrants

I was shocked to discover today just how far the pendulum has swung in terms of American public opinion on immigration. The new United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll revealed that 62 percent of Republicans – the group most likely to oppose “illegal” immigration and the presence of unauthorized migrants in the U.S. – now support allowing “those who have been here for many years and have broken no other laws to stay here legally.” Among Democrats, support is at 72 percent, which means a great majority of Americans from both major political parties are now strongly in favor of a legalization program to solve the problem of irregular migration. Among all respondents, support was 67 percent.

Of the 62 percent of Republican supporters, 43 percent want to deport those who have only been in the United States for a short period of time, and 19 percent favor allowing all unauthorized migrants to stay as long as they have broken no other laws and commit to learning English and U.S. history. With such vast bipartisan support, is now the time is to finally implement a legalization program for the unauthorized population?

Perhaps the American public has finally realized that deporting 11 million people – 8 million of whom are exploitable workers with no labor rights – is simply not rational or feasible. Such action would shrink the economy and tear families apart. And it would unfairly blame and punish the migrants themselves, when others share the blame. Just before 9/11, deportations were less than half as common as they are today (and six years before that, there were almost 90 percent fewer deportations), and employer sanctions were a rarity. For decades, employers lured unauthorized migrants to the U.S. with job offers, while Congress and the president looked the other way when it came to enforcement. Government policies also played a role. Enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 was perhaps the single biggest factor causing the increase in irregular migration.

Thus, the government, employers and migrants should equally share the blame, and any solution must be rational and humane – but also deter future flows of unauthorized migrants. The necessary solution is clear, and really quite simple, and the language used in the UT/National Journal poll suggests some of what’s required.

First, the government can motivate unauthorized residents to come forward by offering legal status to those who can prove they have not committed crimes other than residing in the U.S. without proper authorization, and then require them to pay any unpaid taxes, learn English and take courses in U.S. history. The other key step in the process will be determining how long the unauthorized migrant has resided in the country, and their level of attachment to the labor market. I would argue if you’ve been working continuously in the country for three years, you’ve cemented your place in the U.S. labor market and should be allowed to stay. If a majority disagrees that three years is long enough, a compromise should be negotiated.

The UT/National Journal poll does not specify exactly how many years they meant when asking if respondents would support legalization for those who have been here for “many years.” A new report estimates the length of time the unauthorized population has resided in the country, which gives us an idea of how many people could qualify for this legalization program based on the number of years ultimately required. Only 15 percent of unauthorized migrants have been here less than five years, while 63 percent have been in the country for 10 years or more, and 35 percent have been here for at least 15 years. This tells us that the vast majority of unauthorized migrants are not recent arrivals, and are therefore likely to be well integrated into the labor market because they are unable to access almost any part of the social safety net (i.e., they have no other choice but to work).

Finally, once this program is in place, deport and strictly enforce immigration laws against those that do not qualify for legalization, and begin implementing a functional employment verification system to deter future flows of unauthorized migrants (this would need to include a PIN-based system to overcome some of the privacy concerns inherent in E-Verify, as discussed here).

Unfortunately, political decisions and public policy often fail to respond quickly to public opinion and the public’s desires. But this new polling data revealing broad support for a legalization program – when considered in conjunction with data showing the stock of unauthorized residents in the country has reduced by about one million since the recession, and a sharp decline in the annual flow of unauthorized migrants – suggests there hasn’t been a better time to fix this crucial part of our broken immigration system since 1986.


  • dean1000

    I think the poll is very inaccurate. The public simply doesn’t support legalization of people who have taken jobs their friends, neighbors or relatives would have taken but for illegal entry. The voters also do not support citizenship for people who would have dual citizenship with their native country and the United States.
    Costa is engaging in demonization when he says that most americans want to deport 11 million illegals.  Can he put a percentage on “vast Majority” and say how many people were polled/

  • Paul137

    This is a deeply dishonest article, starting with the quotation marks around “illegal” in “illegal immigration.”  It is, for damn sure, ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION, and no quotation marks or other chicanery will evade that fundamental point.

    Plus, the only choice that can work, attrition by enforcement, is the one choice omitted from the poll Costa gushes over.

    What is “attrition by enforcement”?  Systematic enforcement of all laws against illegal immigration — especially laws against illegal aliens holding jobs — plus piecemeal deportations as illegal aliens encounter law enforcement, including in routine cases like traffic stops.

    Attrition has worked whenever it’s been allowed to, starting with Operation Wetback under Pres. Eisenhower: About 100,000 illegal aliens were forcibly deported, but something like a million left on their own because they could see what was happening, and it’s better to leave at a time of one’s own choosing instead of when someone puts a hand on your shoulder and you have to drop everything and leave.

    In contrast, amnesty just begets further amnesty, proven by the fact that the “just this once and never again” amnesty of 1986 was followed by seven more (aggregating to more illegal aliens amnestied than in 1986) and, here people like Costa are, champing at the bit for yet another one, this time for at least 10 million.

    And mass deportations would be needlessly disruptive **to us**.  Our economy never actually needed illegal aliens and we’ll be fine again without them, but to banish them essentially overnight **would** be substantially disruptive.

  • Killbilly

    “…8 million of whom are exploitable workers with no labor rights…”  Under every proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, those 8 million low-wage laborers will be allowed to bring their families into the U.S. adding 20-30 million more people dependent on U.S. taxpayer subsidies to live here. Support for legalization will plummet when we finally get around to discussing how much it will cost.

  • Gregor

    I won’t say this poll is flawed because that’s not my area of expertise. I believe the result appear to be flawed because they suggest results that defy logic or comments I have seen in other online discussion. But aside from my personal bias, I have concerns that I have yet to see addressed.

    All indications suggest the unemployment rates this country is experiencing have hit the minority groups to a far greater extent than white middle class America. In fact, I believe the unemployment rate among young black males is twice that of the population as a whole. Why then would the black community not rise up and say, “who are these people, here illegally, that are taking jobs we want and desperately need?”

    Where are the national black leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and even Barack Obama on this issue? Why are they not displaying their fury at the economic desparity that exits among all the black population, but especially young black males?

    Employers have been reportedly saying, “Nobody will take these jobs or work as cheaply as these Hispanic do.”  I say that’s not a valid statement. I say employers must hire whoever they employ at market rate. Simply put, if nobody will plant your bushes for $8 per hour, you may need to offer $9 per hour.

    As it is, there are people in this country, here illegally, who do not speak the language of the land, and are putting undue pressure on our healthcare system, our education system, our welfare system and our penal system. At some point, the insanity of this must stop.