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Public opinion left out of picture in Obama immigration drive

Byron York

By Byron York

Published Feb. 3, 2015

 Public opinion left out of picture in Obama immigration drive
Gallup recently asked adults around the country a very simple question about immigration: Are you satisfied, or dissatisfied, with the level of immigration into the United States today? Are too many immigrants coming? Too few? Or is the number just about right?

Before giving the results, it's important to note what that number is. The U.S. awards legal permanent resident status -- a green card, which means lifetime residency plus the option of citizenship -- to about 1 million people per year, a rate Sen. Marco Rubio calls "the most generous" on Earth. In addition, the government hands out more than a half-million student and exchange visas each year, tens of thousands of refugee admissions, and about 700,000 visas to temporary workers and their families. The percentage of foreign-born people in the U.S. population is heading toward levels not seen since the period of 1890 to 1910.

So is that too much, or too little? Gallup found that 47 percent of Americans believe the level of immigration should stay where it is. Thirty-nine percent want to see it decreased. And just 7 percent want it increased. (The remaining 7 percent said they don't know.)

Put another way, 86 percent of Americans would like immigration into this country to remain at today's level or to decrease, versus 7 percent who want to see it increase.

"Americans wish to see current record immigration rates lowered, not raised," said the office of Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, who has opposed comprehensive immigration reform measures on Capitol Hill. "Yet the president's 'Gang of Eight' immigration bill ... doubles the number of annual guest workers and triples the number of green cards over the next 10-year period."

Given public opinion, it shouldn't surprise anyone that the bill did not become law.

Gallup did not ask about immigrants who are already in the United States illegally. But a Wall Street Journal poll touched on that question just before the State of the Union speech, asking respondents which issues should be "an absolute priority for the Obama administration and this year's Congress." On the list was "passing immigration legislation that would create a pathway to U.S. citizenship for foreigners who are currently staying illegally in the United States." It ranked 12th out of 15 possible priorities, with just 39 percent calling it a must-do.

Another immigration-related option, passing reform "that would do more to secure our southern border with Mexico," ranked much higher, with 58 percent of respondents calling it an absolute priority.

Public opinion is not stopping the administration from plowing ahead with the president's decision to grant quasi-legal status, work permits and federal benefits to millions of immigrants here illegally. The recent confirmation hearings of attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch showed just how determined the president is.

Early in the hearing, Sen. Sessions asked Lynch, "Who has more right to a job in this country -- a lawful immigrant who's here, a green-card holder or a citizen, or a person who entered the country unlawfully?"

It's a safe bet most Americans would say the person in the country legally should get the job before a person here illegally. But not Lynch. "I believe that the right and the obligation to work is one that's shared by everyone in this country regardless of how they came here," she answered.

Sessions went on to ask: What if an employer chose to hire a person who is in the country lawfully over an illegal immigrant covered by the president's executive action? Would the Justice Department take action against that employer? Lynch wouldn't answer.

When the polling group Paragon Insights asked recently about the work-permits portion of the president's action, they found that by 71 percent to 21 percent -- a 50-point margin -- Americans would support new legislation "that strengthens the rules making it illegal for businesses in the U.S. to hire illegal immigrants."

No matter. Last November, when President Obama announced the unilateral executive action on immigration, he noted that there are "good, decent people who are worried about immigration," who particularly fear that "immigrants take jobs from hardworking Americans."

"I hear them. And I understand them," Obama said. But the president explained he "had to act" on behalf of the immigrants. Obama knows the problem, and he feels for those who might be hurt; he's just on the side of those here illegally.

Many aspects of public opinion favor opponents of comprehensive immigration reform and of the president's unilateral action. Yet even with that advantage, those opponents sometimes seem unable to make their case effectively. With Republicans now in control of Congress, it's an open question whether GOP lawmakers can craft legislation that moves the nation's immigration policy forward while still respecting public opinion.

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