By Mark Tooley @markdtooley
Religion News Service columnist Jonathan Merritt recently wrote that evangelical elites touting legislation to legalize illegal immigrants are not persuading their own constituency. He cited a Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll showing almost no movement on the issue over the last several years despite much hoopla. And he noted the poll shows 63 percent of white evangelicals favoring deportation of illegal immigrants even though 56 percent also favor legalization when asked.
Napp Nazworth of Christian Post countered that Merritt was underestimating evangelical support for legalization because he cited poll numbers only for white evangelicals. But the addition of non-white evangelicals to the numbers likely would not make a great difference. For example, the PRRI poll constituency was 21 percent white evangelical, 3 percent Hispanic Protestant and 6 percent black Protestant. ALL Asians together were 2 percent of total, with no religious break-down. Even Hispanic Protestants were not uniformly for legalization, with 71 percent favoring, compared to 56 percent of white evangelicals.
There are other more significant factors that complicate claims by some evangelical elites of overwhelming support by evangelicals for their version of legalization. Implicitly many of these elites are backing the U.S. Senate “Gang of 8” legislation, which front-loads legalization for nearly all of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, with pledges of greater security and border enforcement to follow, contingent on future Congresses approving the funds, and future administrations enforcing the laws. The legislation would also DOUBLE legal immigration from 1 million annually to potentially 2 million.
That majorities of white evangelicals in the PRRI poll say they support both legalization AND deportation illustrates the ambiguities in attitudes. Polls show most Americans favoring a conditional legalization but also favoring security measures FIRST. Polls also show majorities opposing an increase in legal immigration. Evangelicals are more conservative than the general population and, though these polls don’t offer a religious breakdown, almost certainly they are more pro-security first and opposed to increased legal immigration.
Regarding any increase in legal immigration, a recent CBS/New York Times poll shows only 25 percent favoring it, while 35 percent favor the status quo and 31 percent favor a decrease. A recent Pew Research Poll shows 25 percent favoring an increase versus 36 for a decrease and 31 for the status quo. A Fox News poll shows 55 percent favoring a decrease, 28 percent for an increase and 10 percent for the status quo. (These polls are here.)
Since polls indicate most Americans and by implication most evangelicals favor security before legalization and oppose increased legal immigration, it’s not fully accurate to say or imply most support the U.S. Senate legislation, which prioritizes legalization before security and dramatically increases legal immigration.
As Merritt surmised, there seems to be very little evidence that sweepingly large numbers of evangelicals, or Americans, have made legalization legislation a major priority for their support. The PRRI survey for example shows only 16 percent of Americans saying it’s a high priority. Doubtless some are passionate on the issue. But immigration is not a consensus issue for evangelicals or most Americans. There are sincere people on both sides. But advocates on either side should be reluctant to claim wide public majorities for their views.