David Hill: Walk the middle on immigration

It’s almost time to push ahead on immigration reform.

Last year, Republican leaders indicated they might go forward on immigration policy after the filing deadlines for primary challenges to incumbents have passed. We’re about there. Even very late primaries, like Florida’s in September, close filing in the next two months. So the groundwork for the legislative debate needs to be laid now.

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If nothing is done before Labor Day, the specter of the November general election will stymie action. If Congress fails to act this year, presidential primary politics will get in the way of doing something next year. Friends of this or that candidate will frame the issue to help or hurt one or another contender. And so it goes. Now is the time to do the deed.

One single word holds Republicans back from acting responsibly to deal with the problem. That word is “amnesty.” Timid Republicans so fear this word they will even act against their own interests and the will of their own people to avoid hearing it yelled from the back of the room.

Should they be less fearful? I’d say yes.

Any immigration challengers to incumbents, if focused on that topic alone, would falter the same as thinly constituted Tea Party challenges. The public is just not that fixated on immigrants. Jobs and the economy and ObamaCare are far more important, even for Republicans.

A Pew poll taken in February demonstrated that neither side in this debate feels any special urgency to act. When asked how important it is to do something on immigration, the response was decidedly “meh.” Only a scattered minority took the intense positions of “extremely” or “not important at all.” As issues go, this is a lower priority for most voters.

Responsible political and business leaders do — or should — recognize that America needs to act. And Republicans should know that as long as this goes unresolved, it gives the Democrats a leg up with Hispanics, the fastest growing segment of the electorate.

The way forward must skirt the “amnesty” charge by avoiding citizenship and even the term “path to citizenship.” The first step would simply exchange border control for normalization of the status of those working here without proper documentation.

Workers, through their employers, would seek something like green cards, thereby solving our biggest problem first. No promise of citizenship would be tendered, and nothing would be granted to those who are here and not working. It’s not a perfect solution, but it provides a decent goal for initial compromise.

Polls clearly show that those in the middle on immigration swing toward reform when given the worker registration option. The Quinnipiac poll’s time series question works best for bolstering this argument because it offers a middle position between citizenship and deportation — something few polls do. Quinnipiac asks: “Which comes closest to your view about illegal immigrants who are currently living in the United States? (A) They should be allowed to stay in the United States and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship. (B) They should be allowed to remain in the United States, but not be allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship. (C) They should be required to leave the U.S.”

In their latest poll using this question, taken last November, 57 percent chose option A and citizenship. This is a majority, but below the 60 percent threshold needed to survive a counterassault. The middle position is the solution. Twelve percent want to allow immigrants to remain but not apply for citizenship. That’s almost 70 percent in the top two boxes, leaving only 26 percent in the deportation category.

The middle is the answer to getting a large enough majority to do the deed. That’s where congressional Republicans should take a stand.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.