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Immigration is a divisive issue, but most Americans agree on certain points

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When we were thinking about issues where public opinion and the country's policies are out of sync, one of the first issues that came to mind was immigration. It goes without saying it's a divisive issue. The conservative news outlets have been flooding the airwaves with images of groups of people crossing the border while other news outlets have focused on Republican governors moving migrants out of their states using practices that seem deceptive. But that obscures the fact that there are points of agreement among Americans across the political spectrum.

A majority of Americans support a pathway to citizenship for certain groups of immigrants, including farmworkers, those deemed as essential workers and for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. That's according to an NPR/Ipsos poll conducted in 2021. And yet action in Washington has stalled. We wanted to understand where that disconnect lies, so we called NPR's Joel Rose. He covers immigration, and he's with us now to tell us more. Joel, welcome. Thanks for coming.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hey. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: I think that it used to be common knowledge in Washington that there was a bipartisan consensus on immigration. But I think that now a lot of people are surprised to hear that. So walk us through the numbers. What is that consensus?

ROSE: We found that there is bipartisan support for creating pathways to citizenship for certain immigrants - right? - farmworkers, as you said, and, quote, "essential workers," for example. Seventy percent of Americans overall agreed with that. And also undocumented immigrants who are brought to the country as children, the so-called DREAMers - about two-thirds of Americans at the time said they supported a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers, although, you know, that number has declined a little bit in our subsequent polling. Back in 2021, we saw majority support for a pathway for both of those groups, even among Republicans, and more than 80% support among Democrats.

MARTIN: What about the question of asylum? I mean, recently, that is what's in the news. You've got people coming from a number of countries who specifically say they - you know, they're not sneaking across. They're walking across, saying, I am here to seek asylum. Do we have a sense of where the public is on that?

ROSE: It's a little bit more complicated. In our polling, Americans seem, you know, inclined to support immigrants who are already living and working here. And, you know, they're not quite as generous to immigrants who are trying to come here to seek asylum.

MARTIN: OK. So you've laid out the ways in which there is a bipartisan consensus, or at least there's a consensus among people who identify with both political parties that something needs to happen. OK, so now the question becomes, Joel, if people - lots of people who identify with both political parties - think something needs to be done, why doesn't anything happen?

ROSE: In a way, I think it just comes down to a big difference in the intensity of feeling around immigration. In our polling, Republicans just seem to care a lot more about immigration than Democrats or independents do. I mean, we see in our polling, about a third of Republicans consistently list immigration among their top concerns. And for Democrats, it's just not in that top tier. You know, it was for a little while under President Trump, but these days, when we poll Democrats on this, it's really in the low single digits that consider immigration to be a top issue.

You know, there are parts of the Republican coalition that would favor a pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants - you know, like the Chamber of Commerce types, libertarians - but they're just not as loud right now as the faction of the party that rejects that, that rejects any kind of reform that they would consider amnesty. And so that's how you have this minority of Americans that can block what the majority says it wants when it comes to immigration.

MARTIN: You know, President Biden took office. He made some specific promises getting the virus under control, rolling vaccines out. He's delivered on, you know, other major commitments like the infrastructure bill, taking action on climate change, which he has done. But addressing immigration issues does not seem to, I don't know, have moved to the forefront. And, you know, why is that? Do you have a sense of why that is? Is it that these other issues have taken precedence, as they have in, frankly, previous administrations? Or is there another dynamic at work?

ROSE: The Biden administration has tried to use its executive authority on immigration, but there, too, it has been blocked repeatedly in court because of these legal challenges that have been brought by Republican-led states, including Texas and Missouri, Louisiana and Arizona. Biden promised on the campaign trail, for example, to end the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico policy, which forced asylum seekers to, you know, wait in these dangerous border towns in Mexico for their hearings in U.S. courts. But he was forced by a federal judge in Texas to reinstate the Remain in Mexico policy. The administration did eventually win that case, but, you know, it had to fight all the way to the Supreme Court to do it. And we've seen that dynamic playing out with other policies.

MARTIN: Both political parties agree that this is a problem, but somehow there's no big fix. Is it just because they fundamentally disagree about what the problem is?

ROSE: Oh, I think that's totally fair to say. Yeah. I mean, for Republicans and immigration hardliners, the problem is that we're not enforcing the immigration laws that are on the books at the border in particular. And so any reform has to begin with sort of tightening that up. And on the left, the idea is that we need to create more legal pathways for people to come here because there's enormous migration flow that people want to come here and that they're fleeing all sorts of, you know, dangers and economic pressures in the hemisphere and further away. You know, and on - so on the left, they want to see more legal pathways, and those two things seem to be at odds.

MARTIN: That is Joel Rose. He covers immigration for NPR. Joel, thank you so much for sharing this reporting with us.

ROSE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.