The Poll's Goals

On the top right of Friday's front page of The New York Timesis a story headlined "Immigration Bill Provisions Gain Wide Support In Poll: Majority Favors Path to Legal Status for Illegal Aliens." Reporters Julia Preston and Marjorie Connelly wrote the story in a way that framed the poll like a memo to Congress, saying "Please pass the bill, the polling water's warm."

The reporters claim the American public is "taking a pragmatic stand on a divisive issue," which could be interpreted to mean they change their answers based on how the poll question is phrased. It's so divisive individual voters have two different opinions depending on thepollster's lingo.But Preston and Connelly began by insisting: "As opponents from the right and left challenge an immigration bill before Congress, there is broad support among Americans - Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike - for the major provisions in the legislation."

The Times illustrates four poll questions with pie graphs, and three of them are written in softball terms for immigration-bill proponents:

- "Would you favor or oppose a guest worker program?" Sixty-six percent said favored, 30 percent said opposed.

- "What should happen to illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for at least two years?" Sixty-two percent agreed they "should be allowed to apply for legal status," while 33 percent said they "should be deported."

- "Should illegal immigrants get a renewable visa if they pay a fine, have a clean record, and pass a background check?" Unsurprisingly, after loading up all these conditions, 68 percent favored the visa, and only 27 percent opposed it.

This a bit like asking the public if they would support speeding 30 miles over the posted speed limit if the driver otherwise "pays a fine and has a clean record." This idea of a "law-abiding illegal" -as Greg Pollowitz found one Washington reporter recently posedat a press conference-is a little nonsensical.

The less favorable questions for the immigration-bill supporters were illustrated on page A-16, or at least one was less favorable: "How serious a problem do you think the issue of illegal immigration is right now?" Sixty-one percent said it's "very serious," 30 percent said "serious," and only 6 percent said " not serious." Two other numbers that would concern the amnesty proponents arrive in the text inside the paper:

- "[Fifty-nine] percent said illegal immigrants should be considered for citizenship only after legal immigrants who have played by the rules."

- "In the poll, 75 percent of those who responded favored tougher penalties for employers of illegal workers, and 82 percent said the federal government should do more to reinforce the border."

But there are other questions in the survey (posted in PDF format here) that Preston and Connelly did not include at all in their story.

- "Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling the issue of immigration?" (27 percent favorable, 60 percent unfavorable.)

- When given four policy priorities and asked to rank them, 56 percent chose action on the issue of "health insurance for all," while only 22 percent chose immigration.

- "Do you think illegal immigrants do more to strengthen the economy because they provide low-cost labor and they spend money, or do illegal immigrants weaken the economy because they don't all pay taxes, but use public services?" (22 percent said do more to strengthen economy, and 70 percent said weaken.)

- Should illegal immigrants be prosecuted and deported for being in the U.S. illegally, or shouldn't they? (69 percent said they should be prosecuted, 24 percent said they should not.)

The last two answers seem to contradict the answers to other questions that the Times highlighted. On page one, they highlighted that 62 percent didn't agree with deporting illegal aliens after two years, which clashes a bit with the general deportation question.

On page 16, the Times highlighted that when asked if "most recent immigrants to the United States contribute to this country, or do most of them cause problems," 57 percent said "contribute," and only 28 percent said "cause problems." This clashes with the strengthen/weaken the economy question. But notice that "do they contribute" question says "most recent immigrants" without making any legal/illegal distinction, and that it can seem suggestive of a racist attitude (most immigrants "cause problems," not most immigrants "contribute less than they benefit.")

It might seem a bit comical, but when the Times asked the "do they contribute" inquiry a different way, and asked respondents "Do you think most other people would say" recent immigrants contribute or cause problems, 32 percent selected "contribute" and 53 percent picked "cause problems." That could either be interpreted as respondents trying not to sound racist, while secretly harboring doubts about immigration in general, or respondents think they are high-minded, but all their fellow citizens are morepejorative or xenophobicthan they are.