For Pav Sterry of Columbus, Ohio, legalizing any unauthorized immigrants — even those who came as children without a choice in the matter — is just plain wrong.
Huy Pham of St. Paul believes any concessions for the so-called Dreamers will unleash another tidal wave of illegal immigration. And Daniel Cotts of Phoenix regards “blanket amnesty” for them as unfair to foreigners who languish for years waiting to come here the legal way.
Poll after poll has shown that a large majority of Americans support protections for young immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children.
Yet there remains a slice of the American public for whom the idea of legalizing an undocumented immigrant has not gotten better with age.
They do not dispute that most of the immigrants are eager and hardworking and did not choose their station in life. But for these voters, that is all beside the point.
“I think DACA recipients should be given a few months to get their affairs in order and return to their home countries,” said Sterry, 58, a former math teacher, referring to the Obama-era program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that President Donald Trump has ended but which could be revived or replaced in a congressional deal.
And to those who contend that the young immigrants would be marooned in a country they do not remember, Sterry says: “Parents and children can all go home together.”
Less than a quarter of American voters, and in some polls as few as one in 10, share Sterry’s beliefs. But they show how the country’s conflicted emotions about unauthorized immigrants have stymied legislation for more than a decade, polarizing both parties and most recently leading to the short-lived government shutdown that still did not settle the issue.
Their counterparts on the liberal side are the progressives who are upset with Senate Democrats like Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, for allowing the government to reopen without a guarantee of protection for DACA recipients, known as Dreamers.
On the Republican side, moderates are feeling the pull of hard-line members who want any legalization bill to incorporate significant changes to immigration enforcement, including measures Democrats generally oppose, such as funding for a border wall, a sharp reduction in overall migration, and a shift to merit-based admissions from a family-based system that critics call “chain migration.”
Trump has repeatedly expressed support for legalizing DACA recipients — on Wednesday, he said he was open to granting them a path to citizenship “at some point in the future, over a period of 10 to 12 years.” But he, too, has felt the pull from people in his administration who objected to the program, which was created by former President Barack Obama in 2012.
In announcing the end of DACA last September, Attorney General Jeff Sessions called it a “unilateral executive amnesty” that had encouraged more illegal immigration and “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens.”
Lars Larson, a syndicated conservative talk-show host based in Portland, Oregon, said that 10 to 15 percent of his callers consider DACA recipients lawbreakers and want to give them “nothing at all.”
“I point out that philosophically, I agree with them, but practically this needs to be resolved,” he said, by granting permission to stay only in exchange for tougher enforcement measures. “Show us that you are bringing something of value.”
In interviews, voters who oppose legalization said that they felt the government was being held hostage by sympathizers of the young immigrants. Most were resigned to the possibility that a deal could happen, and said that they could live with it if conservatives came away with significant new immigration controls.
Still, several invoked the law signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, which granted 2.7 million people legal status while tightening security at the Mexican border and adding strict penalties for employers who hired undocumented workers. Though it promised to reduce illegal immigration, the number of unauthorized people has grown since then to an estimated 11 million.
“Granting legal status to Dreamers could potentially cause a domino effect in which other families bring young children, hoping that in time their children will be granted legal status,” said Jaclyn Haak, 19, a chemical engineering student at the University of Minnesota.
She acknowledged that many DACA recipients are contributing to the economy, but said that this did not mean that legalizing them was in the country’s best interest. She said it could undermine job prospects for Americans, echoing a concern by immigration restrictionist groups.
For Joe Kleve, 21, a senior at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, the argument that the young immigrants had been brought by their parents held no weight.
What if someone’s parents were caught sneaking their whole family into a movie without paying, he asked. “Are they going to just kick the parents out?”
For Pham, 39, the issue was personal. He, too, arrived in the United States as a toddler, as a legally admitted refugee from Vietnam. But until his family could find American sponsors, they were parked in a refugee camp overseas for more than a year.
“If we can do it the legal way, so can they,” said Pham, an information technology consultant. “We don’t have to be creating new programs or giving them preferential treatment.”
The voters opposing legalization were often well-informed about some of the details of the immigration debate, such as E-Verify, an electronic worker-verification system that many Republicans want to make mandatory for employers, and the diversity visa lottery, which admits up to 50,000 foreigners a year who must be vetted, but do not need any special skills or family ties to the United States. Proposals to eliminate the lottery have been circulating for years.
At the same time, a few of those interviewed held to common misconceptions about the young immigrants. Some said the immigrants should not be allowed to become legal if they had not tried to do so before DACA was created. But it is almost impossible for people to secure green cards once they have been here illegally for several years.
Others expressed the sentiment that the immigrants’ parents should have gotten “in line,” though for many foreigners, a legal pathway into the country exists only if they have special skills or relatives in the United States who are citizens.
While these voters remain in the minority, support is not absolute among the majority who want to legalize the young immigrants.
In a CNN poll last week, 84 percent of those surveyed said they supported legal status for Dreamers. But when given a choice between keeping the government open and passing DACA legislation, 56 percent of those polled said it was more important to keep the government open and only 34 percent said a legalization bill was more important, with the rest believing they were equally important or having no opinion. The lack of firm support for the shutdown most likely contributed to Democrats’ decision to end it on Monday.
And for those who disdain legalization, that feeling is not always absolute, either. When pressed on whether deportations of the young immigrants should begin — a distinct possibility if no deal is reached — some hedged their opposition.
“They’d be sent back to countries they have no connection to, don’t know anything about — it’s a very complex situation,” said Cotts, a lawyer, adding that he would like lawmakers to “find a middle ground,” perhaps one that prohibits the immigrants from becoming citizens with voting rights.
Pham suggested letting the immigrants stay, but expelling all those who commit crimes, or even get speeding tickets. “If they’re here already, and they are contributing to society, leave them alone,” he said. He said he did not want them becoming citizens, but then added he would entertain the thought for those who served in the military.
Sterry, however, stuck to her stance. “Let’s not pretend this is only about the children,” she said. Once the young immigrants are legalized, support will mount for legalizing their parents, too, she believed.
When asked about what it felt like to take an unpopular position, Sterry responded: “I don’t care about being popular. Amnesty is wrong.”