Powerful shifts in demographics and public attitudes seem to be building momentum for an overhaul of immigration policies in the next Congress.
Most Nebraskans — 58 percent — favored allowing illegal immigrants who are working in the United States to keep their jobs and pursue legal status, according to The World-Herald Poll.
Twenty-eight percent said they should be deported to their native countries, and 14 percent said they were unsure.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, signaled a change in the air Friday when he said a “comprehensive” approach to immigration was long overdue. Leading Democrats also made clear they want to tackle the issue as well.
Illegal immigration is a policy area that has bedeviled Washington for years, and federal inaction has resulted in a patchwork of approaches at the state and local levels. Some immigrant-friendly cities have adopted a hands-off approach to enforcement; other areas have gone with a get-tough attitude, such as Arizona's “show your papers” measure.
A 2008 ordinance in Fremont, Neb., bans landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. The ordinance is tied up in the courts.
That ordinance and some recent rhetoric from Nebraska politicians suggest the state is committed to a kick-'em-out policy toward illegal immigrants.
But The World-Herald Poll found otherwise, with half of Republicans and more than two-thirds of Democrats saying they would offer illegal immigrants a chance to stay and eventually apply for legal status.
Eight-hundred registered voters were surveyed Oct. 23-25 by Wiese Research Associates of Omaha. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
University of Nebraska at Omaha political scientist Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado said he was not surprised at the results.
“My sentiment for a very long time is that if Nebraskans get to know and understand all the dynamics around immigration and its relationship to the economy that they would most likely be in favor of trying to ... further integrate the Latino population into the mainstream,” he said.
But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a national group that favors stricter immigration policies, criticized the options offered in the poll question, saying that people know a “deport-them-all” approach is unrealistic.
He suggested people respond differently if offered an option of “enforce the law and get them to leave over time,” otherwise known as self-deportation.
He said the problem faced by those pushing to get legal status for those in the country illegally is that everyone saw what happened after the 1986 immigration amnesty law: continued illegal immigration.
“The key issue is that nobody believes that the government will actually keep promises and enforce the law, and then we'll just end up with another 11 million illegal immigrants,” Krikorian said.
Nebraska's results generally track with national polls conducted by other news organizations recently, including exit polls from Tuesday's election.
In fact, Tuesday's results represent another reason to think Congress might act on the matter. Harder-line GOP immigration stances are widely viewed as one reason Democrats performed much better than Republicans with Hispanic voters.
Nebraska attitudes do vary geographically.
The Omaha area showed the strongest support for allowing illegal immigrants to stay and pursue legal status, while the approach was less popular in the central and western parts of the state. Still, half of those surveyed in the sprawling and largely rural 3rd Congressional District favored letting them stay, while only slightly more than a third said to deport them.
Brad Czaplewski, a public school teacher in Grand Island, suggested that part of the openness to letting illegal immigrants stay and pursue legal status is borne of resignation and an acknowledgment that it's not practical to round up all illegal immigrants and ship them off. People feel as if they might as well just adapt to the situation.
“We've probably passed a tipping point,” Czaplewski said.
He also questioned all of the close-the-border talk, saying that shutting down the flow of people into the United States runs counter to preserving it as a free and open country.
“If that had happened to my great-grandfather, I wouldn't be here,” Czaplewski said.
John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, noted that Nebraska is a conservative state and that politicians from Ben Nelson to Dave Heineman have made hay from tacking to the right on immigration. The poll suggests the future might look different.
“Maybe there's greater support within the Republican Party for a more moderate view on immigration than we thought previously,” Hibbing said.
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