U.S. Inaction Faulted, Immigration Polls Find

U.S. Inaction Faulted, Immigration Polls Find

Md., Va. Residents Have Differing Views About How New Arrivals Affect Daily Life

By Jon Cohen and Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 16, 2007; Page B01

In Maryland and Virginia, about seven in 10 people say the federal government has not done enough to deal with illegal immigration and one in five describe it as “a very serious” local problem, according to two newly released Washington Post polls.

In both states, majorities of those surveyed said recent immigrants have changed their communities, but there is wide disagreement about their impact on daily life. Attitudes are much harsher toward undocumented immigrants than toward legal newcomers.

Few issues inspire a stronger reaction than illegal immigration.

“I'm not willing to do a damn thing for anybody who's in this country illegally and is using the services and causing problems,” Mary Ann Carr, 61, who works in a Glen Burnie law office, said in a follow-up interview to the survey.

For Michelle Stallard, 37, a homemaker in Front Royal, a top concern is that “they don't even try to follow our customs or speak English.”

Dean Schaffer, 40, a software developer in Spotsylvania County, has a basic worry: “Are there going to be jobs for everybody?”

Intense feelings about undocumented immigrants stem from not only the range of concerns, but also the prevailing sense of federal inaction on illegal immigration, a feeling that it has become a local problem and an underlying ambivalence toward immigration more generally.

About a third of Marylanders said recent immigrants have made life better in their part of the state, while 27 percent said the new arrivals have made things worse. Virginians were evenly divided on the question.

The Virginia poll reveals additional detail behind the public's complex views about immigration. There, seven in 10 said most recent immigrants do not do enough to learn English or generally fit in with American culture and values.

Other concerns also drive negative opinions on illegal immigration. A third of Virginians cited illegal immigrants' use of public services, a quarter mentioned their breaking the law to get here, and one in eight said it was because of their effect on the job market.

Majorities in both Maryland and Virginia want their state and local governments to do “a lot” more to handle illegal immigration.

An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, including tens of thousands among an estimated half-million immigrants in the Washington area. And in both states, about six in 10 residents said “many” new immigrants, those arriving in the past 10 years or so, live in their areas.

In Virginia, where immigration emerged as a top issue in last week's General Assembly elections, almost two-thirds of respondents want local police to get involved in immigration enforcement by checking the immigration status of people they suspect of a crime and think may be undocumented, even if that meant fewer illegal immigrants would cooperate with authorities.

More generally, 48 percent of Virginians think immigrants, not just illegal immigrants, strengthen the country and 46 percent call them a burden. In Maryland, a bare majority, 51 percent, said immigrants are good for the country, while 42 percent said they are a burden.

The polls find the biggest differences in attitudes are within, not between, the two states.

In Northern Virginia, 63 percent of respondents said immigrants strengthen the United States, while far fewer, 41 percent, of those in the rest of the state said so. And even within Northern Virginia, where the influx of new immigrants has been steepest, there are widely divergent views. Almost seven in 10 in Fairfax County said immigrants help the country, but the number saying so in Prince William County was 49 percent.

There is a similar divide in Maryland. Half of Montgomery County residents said new immigrants have made their community better, far more than said so in Prince George's (32 percent) or Anne Arundel (29 percent) counties.

In both states, attitudes toward immigrants grow more positive with education and income, and there are also deep partisan divides.

Most Democrats in Maryland and Virginia said immigrants help the country, with Republicans much less likely to say so. Republicans in Virginia are nearly 20 percentage points more likely than Democrats to want their local police to check suspects' immigration status, even if fewer illegal immigrants would cooperate with investigations and report crimes.

Among white Democrats, almost six in 10 said immigrants strengthen the country, while African Americans are evenly divided. White Democrats are also more likely than black Democrats in both states to say new immigrants have made their communities better places to live. Conversely, black Democrats are more likely to want their state and local governments to pass measures to address illegal immigration.

In Virginia, where more than half of all respondents reported having “a great deal” or a “moderate” amount of contact with new immigrants, 13 percent called immigration either the state's top or second-most important issue. Only 5 percent of Marylanders said the same.

Virginians in regular personal contact with recent immigrants were more likely to cite immigration as a major concern. And in certain areas that have experienced large influxes of immigrants in recent years, such as Prince William County, attitudes are particularly negative.

More than eight in 10 Prince William respondents called illegal immigration a problem in their part of the state, including 56 percent who said it is a “very serious” problem. And a majority said new immigrants in general lowered the quality of life in the county.

Statewide, in surveying the top concerns about illegal immigrants, fewer than one in 10 cited their failure to adopt American values, their criminal activity or other issues. Just 4 percent highlighted crime as their primary concern about illegal immigration, in part because few think new immigrants are more likely to be involved in criminal activity than people born here.

Only a quarter of Virginians see recent immigrants as more prone to commit crimes, while most, 63 percent, said they are no more or less likely. About one in 10 think they are less apt to break the law.

Neither of the new polls focused on what the federal government should do about the illegal immigrants now in the country. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, however, found public attitudes deeply divided on that issue as well: 51 percent of all Americans supported giving those now here the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements, and 44 percent were opposed.

In follow-up interviews with poll respondents in Maryland and Virginia, opinion was similarly mixed, and intense.

“I have nothing against their staying, I just simply think they should be registered,” said Mary Louise Wilson, 79, a retiree in Bowie. “I don't know how you can do it, without hurting people, but if they are illegally here, something has to be done. . . . How do you teach your children right from wrong if you say, okay, all these illegal people can stay?' ”

Bill Tobalske, 61, a retired Air Force employee in Fairfax, had an opposing view. “I don't think they are criminals, but they should abide by the law,” he said. “Let's forgive and forget, and start the process.”

The Washington Post poll for Virginia was conducted by telephone Oct. 4 to 8 among a statewide random sample of 1,144 adults. The Washington Post poll for Maryland was conducted Oct. 18 to 22 among a statewide sample of 1,103 randomly selected adults. The full results from each poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.