A Path to Confusion

It splits the public according to a new poll which also shows it enjoying wide support.

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A protester holding a banner that looks like a United States green card walks down Broadway Street in the downtown Los Angeles Tuesday, May 1, 2007, on their way to the Los Angeles City Hall for a rally . Angry over recent raids and frustrated with Congress, thousands of Hispanics and others took to the nation's streets Tuesday to demand a path to citizenship for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

Writing about the GOP's immigration death wish yesterday, I stumbled on a couple of polling data points that illustrate how fraught and confusing the issue remains.

Bloomberg released a poll earlier this week, conducted by Selzer & Co., focusing on immigration reform. First it asked whether the respondents "support or oppose a revision of immigration policies that would provide a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.?" The answers reflected sharp division in the country in the form of a statistical tie: 46 percent support and 45 percent oppose (the margin of error was +/- 3.1 percent). It's notable that that result is at variance with most other results of similar questions in other polls.

But more importantly, the finding in that Bloomberg poll is at variance with … the very next set of questions in the same Bloomberg poll.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

To wit, respondents were next asked about specific elements of the immigration reform wending its way through the Senate. How many support "allowing immigrants living in the country illegally to become citizens, provided they don't have criminal records, they pay fines and back taxes, and they wait for more than 10 years?" A whopping 74 percent support that idea while only 21 percent oppose it. Of course that idea is the same one that sharply divided respondents when it was referred to by its shorthand descriptive: "a path to citizenship."

What gives? Part of the answer, says J. Ann Selzer, whose firm conducted the poll for Bloomberg, is that Americans "want to be sure that the right people are staying and the wrong people are not and that we don't want to let any more of those wrong people in." The caveats about not being criminals matter. And part of it is the definition of "path to citizenship." She says: "Do we make the assumption that people have the same common meaning of path to citizenship? I would say it's not a majority that has the same definitions of that."

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

What does this tell us about the public and immigration? That pro-reform forces are slightly losing the messaging war over the "path" as an abstract concept. The trick for them will be to either come up with a different descriptive for the idea or to find a more effective way of making sure people understand the details behind the concept.

"There are mine fields of hot button issues here," Selzer says. Indeed.

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