"We in Arizona have been more than patient waiting for Washington to act," Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said when she signed Arizona's controversial new immigration law. "But decades of federal inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation." New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, while deeply critical of Arizona's action, also cast blame on Washington for failure to act.
Americans believe illegal immigration is a serious problem, and like Gov. Brewer and Mayor Bloomberg, they think immigration policy is a federal responsibility. In a 2008 Transatlantic Trends/German Marshall Fund poll, 77% of Americans looked to Washington to make decisions about immigration policy. Only 17% said they favored state or local decision-making on the issue.
Arizona is a major entry point for illegal immigrants, so it's worth understanding how its citizens feel. During the last big immigration debate in 2006, the Pew Research Center looked closely at national views on immigration and then at views of people in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Nationally 41% said immigration was a very or moderately big problem in their communities. In the Phoenix metropolitan area, however, 78% gave that response.
Forty-nine percent nationally said they often came into contact with people who spoke little or no English. Two-thirds in Phoenix gave that response. Nationally 26% said recent immigrants were making things worse in terms of local government services. In the Phoenix area, 41% said that was the case. One-third nationally said immigrants from Latin America significantly increased crime. Forty-six percent of people from Phoenix said they did.
But Phoenix-area residents were not hostile to immigrants or immigration. More people in Phoenix wanted legal immigration increased (26%) than did so nationally (17%). Thirty percent in the Phoenix area and 40% nationally wanted to reduce it. Nationally 52% said immigrants were more of a burden than an asset because they take jobs, housing and health care. Fewer residents of metropolitan Phoenix residents thought they were a burden (46%).
Forty-eight percent nationally said the growing number of newcomers threatened traditional American customs and values. In Phoenix 38% gave that response. People in the Phoenix area were also more likely to have friends or relatives who were immigrants (35%) than were those in the national sample (26%). Eighty-one percent of Phoenix residents had a favorable view of Hispanics, compared with 75% nationally. Large majorities nationally and in Phoenix said immigrants mostly take jobs Americans don't want. These positive attitudes explain why Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon is weighing a legal challenge to his state's new law.
In the poll, people in Phoenix were more positive about their state and local governments' ability to deal with the issue than they were about Washington's. Janet Napolitano was Arizona's governor when the poll was conducted.
Will Washington act now? My American Enterprise Institute colleague Michael Barone says the immigration issue is "political poison for both parties." Legislation that would give illegal immigrants legal status, he says, makes Democrats look like they are supporting amnesty, while opposition from Republicans leaves them open to the charge that they are anti-Hispanic.
Hispanics are a growing share of the nation and the electorate. In the last election they voted 67% to 31% for Obama over McCain, and cementing their political allegiance would provide dividends to the Democrats for years to come. That's probably why Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who faces a very tough election in November and needs Hispanic votes, announced that he wanted push an immigration bill to the floor this session. The politics of the issue also explain why he backtracked a few days later. The last immigration debate divided Republicans, but it also divided Democrats.
Now Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, says three senior Democrats, including Reid, are floating the idea of a Democrat-only bill that would "require that a series of new border security benchmarks be met before broader immigration reforms are enacted." President Obama says it will be difficult to tackle the issue this year. Whether Americans support or oppose what Arizona is doing (and a new Gallup poll shows bare majority support among those aware of the new law, with 39% opposed) one thing is clear: They are blaming Washington for failure to act.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.