WASHINGTON, D.C. — For all the attention given so far to efforts in Congress to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, nearly four in 10 Americans say they don’t know enough about it to have an opinion, and fewer than one-quarter could correctly answer a couple of basic questions about it, a new poll shows.
The survey, by the Pew Research Center, underscores an important fact in the immigration debate — most of the public has not yet tuned in. A bipartisan proposal negotiated by eight senators has gathered considerable strength, and Senate debate is scheduled to start next week, but because so many Americans remain unengaged, predictions about the bill’s fate almost certainly remain premature.
Just more than half of those surveyed said either that they did not think the immigration bill would have much impact one way or the other on the economy or that they didn’t know what impact it would have. Among those who felt the bill would have an economic impact, opinions were almost equally divided about whether the impact would be good or bad.
Opponents of the Senate proposal have tried to slow it down by pointing to the fact that the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were immigrants. So far, that argument has not gathered much traction, the poll indicates. About one-third of those surveyed said the Boston attack “should be an important factor in the immigration bill debate.” They were heavily outnumbered by the 58 percent who said the bombing was “mostly a separate issue.”
Only 13 percent said they thought the immigration bill being debated in Congress would make the country “less safe from terrorism” while 57 percent said they thought it would “not make much difference” and 14 percent predicted it would make the country safer.
Republicans (20 percent) were more likely than Democrats (8 percent) to worry that the bill would make the country less safe. That reflected an overall partisan gap in views of the bill, with Democrats supporting it, 44 percent-22 percent, and Republicans closely divided, 30 percent-34 percent. President Barack Obama has made passage of immigration reform his top legislative priority. On the Republican side, many lawmakers oppose key elements of the bill, but party leaders favor it, believing that passage is a necessary first step to allow the GOP to begin making progress with Latino voters.
The partisan group most opposed to the bill were people who identify as independents who lean Republican. That group, which includes a significant number of tea party conservatives, opposed the bill 19 percent-51 percent.
College graduates supported the bill, 44 percent-21 percent, while those who do not have a college degree were closely split. Blacks supported the bill, 42 percent-22 percent, while whites were closely divided. Among whites, opposition was strongest among those without a college education. White college graduates supported the bill, 39 percent-22 percent, while whites without a bachelor’s degree, who have been an important Republican constituency, opposed it 23 percent-35 percent.
Knowledge about the bill remains sparse, the poll indicated. Just more than one-third of those surveyed correctly said the bill had been introduced by a bipartisan group, with about half saying they didn’t know who introduced it. And just less than half correctly said the bill would allow “unauthorized immigrants to stay in the country while applying for citizenship.” Only 24 percent correctly answered both questions.
Typically, strong political partisans pay more attention to public affairs than those with a less partisan view. That may be true in this case, as well. According to the survey, those who correctly answered both questions were considerably more likely to have an opinion about the bill, with 50 percent supporting it and 33 percent opposed. Among those who got both questions wrong, only 43 percent had an opinion one way or the other.
Democrats who knew that the bill would allow unauthorized immigrants to remain in the country while seeking citizenship favored the bill, 60 percent-18 percent. Republicans who knew that basic fact opposed it, 27 percent-52 percent, a potential indicator of the trouble the bill could face, particularly in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
The poll was conducted by telephone, including land lines and cellphones, Thursday-Sunday, among 1,003 American adults. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.