If all goes as planned, Congress will try once more to deal with comprehensive immigration reform in February and March of this year. Congressmen Solomon Ortiz (D-TX) and Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) have already submitted an ambitiously progressive bill (HR 4321), which has garnered 92 House co-sponsors, and Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is about to introduce a more conservative version in the Senate.
However, many Democrats view this effort with great trepidation, while Republicans are gearing up to use immigration reform as a bogeyman to use against the November midterm elections. Both assume that with unemployment at 10%, the voters will be in no mood to give a break to people who are portrayed by right-wing populists as "job thieves".
Yet a new public opinion survey carried out by Benenson Strategy Group, a firm often used by Democrats, suggests that these fears may be overblown. To summarize, Benenson chief Pete Brodnitz writes in a memo: "While comprehensive immigration reform has some vocal opponents, we found that the vast majority of voters (two thirds or more depending on the details) favor comprehensive immigration reform, a position that has not wavered in the face of an economic downturn...voters see a relationship between comprehensive immigration reform and the economy and perceive an economic and fiscal benefit to passing reform."
This approximate figure for support of a reform plan which, among other things, would give legal status to the vast majority of the 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants now in the country has held steady for several years, not only in the teeth of severe economic difficulties but also in spite of an incredibly vicious, all pervasive campaign by the Republican right and its media allies to portray immigrants as criminal and diseased terrorists and a threat to the very existence of the United States.
In the Bennenson poll, when the details of a possible immigration reform were presented, support (86%) was even higher than when the question was put abstractly, without details of what such a reform would entail (64%). The phrasing of the questions in the poll closely tracked the language Democratic Party leaders are using in their presentation of the idea of comprehensive immigration reform, i.e. to balance off the chance of legalization for the undocumented against more control measures. Surprisingly, there was not much of a difference among Democrats, Republicans and Independents. The surveyed showed a high level of recognition that legalizing the undocumented would be beneficial to the economy, by enabling more immigrants to pay taxes and contribute in other ways.
The general impression is that the virulent anti-immigrant movement indeed has a social base, but that does not constitute more than about 20 to 30% of the population. This is still a problem, because of the distribution of some of the anti-immigrant feeling in certain states and congressional districts that the Democratic Party and the Obama administration will be keen to win, or, in a number of cases in which Senate or House seats were won in such districts in 2008, to retain.
The survey results and other data suggest that a greater effort on the part of labor and the immigration reform movement to refute misinformation being put out in the media about immigrants and their relationship to unemployment, crime, health care and our society in general might create a political space in which more Representatives and Senators could pick up the courage to vote for a reasonable reform this year.