Economic Downturn Could Bolster US Immigration Overhaul

Fawn Johnson, Wall Street Journal, June 2, 2009

Tough economic times may be a boon for supporters of a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration policies, according to pollsters who are testing the waters ahead of an upcoming White House summit on immigration.

‘If anything, the economic climate has actually improved the environment for immigration reform, at least as far as the public is concerned,’ said Celinda Lake, who heads Lake Research Partners.

‘A salient issue is that reform would make immigrants all taxpayers,’ Lake said during a telephone briefing.

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A recent survey by Benenson Strategy Group showed that 71% of likely voters think illegal immigrants should take steps to become legal taxpayers. Benenson does polling for President Barack Obama, along with other elected officials and Fortune 100 companies.

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Immigration overhaul also is a top priority for businesses in the U.S., from high-tech manufacturing companies to the landscaping and farming sectors. Companies such as Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Oracle Corp. (ORCL) have long advocated for greater access to foreign labor.

But lawmakers on Capitol Hill, particularly in the House, are wary of confronting the immigration issue. Both Republican and Democratic moderates fear they will be skewered by voters if they support proposals to legalize illegal workers.

Recent interviews with citizens suggest otherwise. ‘They want a level playing field and they don’t have one today,’ said Lake, whose firm recently conducted a series of in-depth focus groups on immigration. ‘There’s a huge pool of workers that are playing by a different set of rules than they are.’

The public also isn’t interested in harsh punishments for illegal workers, Lake’s research suggests.

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Pollsters believe a majority of voters support an immigration overhaul, but opponents of legalization are organized and vocal and can endanger some elected officials if they vote to allow undocumented workers to earn legal status.

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