October 1, 2015 | By Sara McElmurry

Calling a Vote before the Curtain Call

US House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) publicly announces his resignation as Speaker and from the US Congress at a news conference on September 25, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The Republican reaction to House Speaker John Boehner’s sudden resignation last Friday has been anything but somber, ranging from a standing ovation at a conservative voter summit, to cheers from the GOP presidential field, to a rendition of zip-a-dee-doo-dah from the soon-to-be former Speaker himself.
 
A decidedly more serious response has come from a seemingly unlikely source: immigration advocates. Following news of Boehner’s resignation, various groups have issued impassioned pleas for the Speaker to use his remaining time in Congress to call a vote on S.744, the immigration reform bill that has languished in the House since passing the Senate in June 2013. The lame duck Speaker has little to lose by acting on an issue he once prioritized as “long overdue,” they say. Calling a vote would secure his legacy as the man who re-ignited the national debate on immigration, they speculate. 
 
The Speaker’s office has countered, cautioning that they “don’t expect anything to change on [immigration reform] over the next month.” But numbers from the 2015 Chicago Council Survey suggest that calling a vote might not be a bad idea: There is actually widespread bipartisan support for employment and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, both core elements of S.744.

The 2015 Chicago Council Survey data indicates significant—but divided—GOP backing of immigration reform. The prospect of undocumented workers staying in the US and keeping their jobs had traction among a majority (54%) of Republican respondents surveyed. Support varied with self-reported strength of party affiliation, lower (49%) for “strong” Republicans and higher (59%) for “weak” Republicans. A full 42 percent of these “weak” Republicans also supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers.
 
What’s more, the Chicago Council Survey points to low levels of concern about immigration amongst Republican “elite” leadership, with small cohorts citing immigration as a “critical threat” (16%) agreeing that controlling and reducing immigration is a “very important” policy goal (20%). Such relaxed attitudes explain why the anti-immigrant rhetoric characterizing the presidential campaign as of late is turning off conservative leadership, including the executive director of a Koch brothers-backed organization.
 
Meanwhile, Democrats and Independents are significantly—if predictably—less concerned about immigration than their Republican peers. In fact, a 20-year downward trend in overall public concern about immigration has been driven by a dramatic drop amongst Democrats, even as Republican concern on the issue has held fairly steady.  A full 85 percent of Democrats agree that undocumented workers should be allowed to stay in their jobs, as do 68 percent of Independents. Majorities of both parties—77 and 52 percent respectively—support some kind of pathway to citizenship for these workers.  
 
Inter- and intra-party divisions and politics matter little to average Americans, who just want to see Congress get the job done. They are increasingly keen on the economic contributions of immigrants—including undocumented immigrants, who paid $11 billion in state and local taxes in 2012—and increasingly supportive of policy solutions that allow these workers to keep working. (The Chicago Council Survey recorded a super-majority of Americans—69%—agreeing that undocumented workers should be allowed to stay in their jobs. And a majority—56%—agreed that undocumented workers should be able to apply for U.S. citizenship.) Such strong support for immigration reform may be due to a well-documented net-zero migration from Mexico, and the demographic reality that immigrants of all stripes have driven more than half of the nation’s population growth since 1965—the last time that the US saw a comprehensive immigration reform. There’s also the fact that the Latino electorate is growing in strength and numbers, ready to go to the polls to elect new representation that reflects their strong, personal support of immigration reform if necessary.
 
Members of Congress are ultimately accountable to this general electorate, a public that has long given them dismal approval ratings and is eager to see their Representatives move forward on long-promised, much-maligned reform legislation. Speaker Boehner would do well to embrace the common ground that does actually exist with his Congressional colleagues on this issue—and with the voters they collectively represent. 

About

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.

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