By turning out close to a million people in cities from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for demonstrations against punitive immigration laws, the Hispanic community has delivered a timely reminder of the often-forgotten voice in this national debate.
For too long, others with shaky claims to authenticity have attempted to speak on behalf of the immigrants who are most affected by the laws and regulations now being debated in Congress. It was not until this month that the first substantial poll of immigrants was taken.
Its findings give the lie to one of the most frequent claims from those who want to "crack down" on illegal immigration, the assertion that undocumented workers are resented by those who have come to this country legally. This week, Sergio Bendixen, a respected professional pollster, briefed me on the survey his firm had just completed of 800 legal immigrants, from 43 different countries, living in 47 states -- a cross section carefully designed to mirror the makeup of the 26 million legal immigrants the Census counts.
To assure accuracy, Bendixen arranged to interview subjects in their native languages, whenever they requested. When he probed these legal immigrants for their attitude toward the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S., Bendixen asked two key questions. By a margin of 81 percent to 11 percent, the legal immigrants said they think the illegals are taking jobs that legal residents and citizens do not want to do, rather than taking jobs away from them.
And 73 percent of them said the illegals help the economy by providing low-cost labor, while only 17 percent said they hurt the economy by driving down wages -- a favorite contention of those who want to restrict immigration.
Backers of the tough House-passed bill to make it a crime to enter the country illegally contend that a guest worker program of the kind the Senate Judiciary Committee this week included in its bill would allow illegals to "cut into line" ahead of those who are waiting to become citizens legally. But Bendixen said the interviews found that "the resentment isn't there."
He said that one woman, an accountant, who gained her citizenship by following the rules, explained, "'I came first class. The illegals are coming coach -- they do jobs I didn't have to do, and they live outside the law."
"She didn't feel that she was in competition with them," Bendixen said. "She felt sympathy for them."
That mindset explains the legal immigrants' hostility to the main provisions of the House bill -- and also the emotion that pulled so many thousands of immigrants into the streets for demonstrations during the last week.
Majorities of about 70 percent or more oppose all these steps: arresting illegal immigrants and charging them with a felony; deporting all illegal immigrants; imposing stiff penalties on employers who hire illegals or groups that help them; or building a wall between the United States and Mexico to discourage illegal immigration.
On the other hand, two-thirds of the legal immigrants favor President Bush's proposal to provide work permits for temporary employment, with a proviso that the recipient return to the home country. And even more -- eight out of 10 -- favor the kind of legislation that came out of the Senate Judiciary Committee which would open a path to eventual citizenship for illegals who remain in this country for an extended period, learn English, pay a fine and have no criminal record.
But Bendixen's survey, completed before the committee vote, found skepticism among the legal immigrants about the stance of both parties on immigration issues. Only 22 percent said the Republican Party was doing a good job on immigration issues; for Democrats, the approval score was 38 percent, just six points higher than the rating for Bush on immigration.
Disturbingly, the survey found that two-thirds of the legal immigrants believe that anti-immigrant sentiment is growing in the United States, and more than half said it has affected them and their families personally.
Racism against Latino and Asian immigrants is blamed by more than six out of 10 for fueling this development.
The demonstrations are a reminder of the risks in policy that feeds such fears.
David Broder is a columnist for the Washington Post. E-mail him at email@example.com. His column appears on Thursday and Sunday.