Americans are incoherent on immigration
Maybe that's why we can’t seem to fix it
For a "nation of immigrants," Americans have remarkably mixed feelings about immigration — feelings which are surely a contributing factor to our multi-decade treadmill slog toward immigration reform.
Consider these new poll results from Pew Research Center:
Every single question sees a majority agreeing that the proposal at hand is either "very" or "somewhat" important for the United States. Dive into the demographic breakdowns and you'll find partisan trends, but often less dramatic than the past five years of immigration debate might suggest. In fact, on a two-year trendline, Republicans and Democrats are generally moving in the same direction, albeit from different starting points.
So what has Americans thus united? Beefing up border security and keeping out asylum seekers — yet treating asylum seekers humanely if they somehow manage to break through our diverse defenses. The same survey also found seven in 10 Americans (including half of Republicans) want a path to legal status for immigrants in the country illegally, and another recent poll from The Associated Press found three quarters of Americans want to allow refugees to come to the United States to escape violence.
It all seems so contradictory. Together, these surveys suggest the median U.S. opinion is that an undocumented immigrant inside the country should be allowed to stay, but an asylum seeker at the border should be turned away by a robust security apparatus, but a refugee trying to come from farther away should be welcomed in.
Some of this is different people wanting different things. Yet with majority opinions well above 50 percent on so many of these questions, there must be overlap, and overlap doesn't make much sense. Why beef up security only to accept those who evade it? (Particularly when border security has already massively expanded — in both cost and manpower, by both Democrats and Republicans — over the past three decades.) And why the favor for refuge and disfavor for asylum? The main difference between them is location. (As the Department of Homeland Security explains: "An asylee is a person who meets the definition of refugee and is already present in the United States or is seeking admission at a port of entry.") Moreover, regardless of individuals' views, how are lawmakers supposed to turn this jumble into reasonably coherent and representative governance?
I suspect the confusion around location is partly just how humans work: It's easier for us to identify with and meaningfully care about people physically closer to us. We can shrug at a major catastrophe half the world away and sob over a much smaller tragedy in our own town. Likewise, an undocumented immigrant is here illegally, but she is here. "Americans have empathy for those who live among us and who are good people — as most illegal immigrants are," Alex Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies at the Cato Institute, told me in an interview by email. "But those feelings do not extend to people on the other side of the border."
That latter group includes asylum seekers, Nowrasteh said, because many Americans don't believe the "migrants showing up on the southwest border are bona fide asylum seekers" — and that belief is often correct. "Some of them may be asylum seekers according to a broad reading of U.S. law," he explained, "but the vast majority of them clearly aren't." They're better described as economic migrants trying to do the whole only in America, land of opportunity thing, which is quite difficult to accomplish under current law. Asylum is one of very few legal immigration paths for unskilled workers without close family in the United States. That's why so many people who don't strictly need asylum try to get it.
This dynamic might sound like a great reason to make our immigration process much simpler and open to more people. That's certainly how it strikes me. The trouble is many "Americans have no idea how the immigration system works and how restrictive it is," Nowrasteh told me. They also "hate chaos and want to stop it by using the government," he continued, sharing research which suggests "the perception of greater chaos and less control over immigration leads to opposition to immigration, even the legal variety, and greater political support for harsh repressive methods."
The recent surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border — including tens of thousands in line to seek asylum — looks like chaos on American news segments. That has many Americans (even many who are typically pro-immigration) demanding more security and restrictions at the border. What they don't realize is the extensive security and byzantine restrictions already in place are a key source of the very chaos they want to stop.
Giving economic migrants a quick, doable option to immigrate "the right way" would remove the incentive for them to do it "the wrong way," including illicit border crossings and the unmerited asylum claims Americans are so eager to reduce. For our immigration policy and feelings alike, we need to simplify.