As Congress debated sweeping immigration reform this spring, more than a million people took to the streets in demonstrations from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. Clearly, the extraordinary turnout reflects strong concerns by immigrants and others about the tone of the debate in Washington.
But to get a deeper understanding of the views of immigrants, one had to go beyond the placards and protest chants. Many policymakers and journalists turned to the results of a well-timed poll, released in late March by New America Media, the first major survey of the very communities that would be most affected by policies under consideration.
"The poll gave immigrants the first chance to participate in the debate rather than be targets of the debate," says Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media.
The poll's findings helped explain immigrants' hostility to the main provisions of the bill passed late last year by the House of Representatives, the harshest of the reforms under consideration, but it also revealed that neither political party gets very high marks on immigration issues.
"The poll gave immigrants the first chance to participate in the debate rather than be targets of the debate," said Sandy Close, executive director of New America Media, which is using a grant from The James Irvine Foundation to help inform public understanding on a range of significant policy issues.
The national survey by Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based pollster, interviewed 800 legal immigrants, from 43 countries, living in 47 states — a cross-section designed to mirror the makeup of the 26 million legal immigrants in the United States. In addition to New America Media, the poll was co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund.
The poll probed the attitudes of legal immigrants toward the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. And the findings helped to dispel a frequent claim by those who argue for more punitive laws: that undocumented workers are resented by those who have come here legally.
Bendixen's survey found little evidence for that resentment. On the contrary, the poll found that legal immigrants in the United States view undocumented immigrants favorably and support legislation that would give them a path to citizenship.
Eighty-one percent of legal immigrants said they think undocumented workers are taking jobs that legal residents do not want to do, rather than taking jobs away from them. And 73 percent said that illegal immigrants help the economy by providing low-cost labor, while only 17 percent said they hurt the economy by driving down wages.
Overall, legal immigrants expressed alarm at the tone and substance of the current political debate on immigration policy. Two-thirds of people polled believe that anti-immigration sentiment is growing in the United States, and more than half said it has affected them and their families personally.
Legal immigrants give all the major political parties fairly low ratings on immigration issues. While only 22 percent said the Republican Party was doing a good job, the Democratic Party did not fare much better, with only about a third of legal immigrants giving them a positive rating.
"New America Media's polling educates policymakers and the public about the perspectives of communities whose opinions are often under the radar screen," noted Amy Dominguez-Arms, Irvine's Program Director of California Perspectives. "Their polls reveal both interesting commonalities and areas of differences on important policy issues among California's diverse, multi-lingual population."
The James Irvine Foundation's support to New America Media extends beyond its polling on significant state and national issues and includes support for New America Media's role in strengthening ethnic media's capacity to report on California policy issues, via its news service and through new journalism fellowship programs.