Leftists disagree also

The conventional wisdom that immigration reform splits the Republican Party is correct, but less understood is that the issue does the same thing to the Democratic coalition, too.

In fact, looking below the surface, it’s clear that in terms of public opinion, the socioeconomic divide is greater than the partisan one.

Part of the reason for this misconception is that the Republican intra-party fight is much more public. President Bush and many of his congressional allies are clearly split on the issue.

Since Democrats hold neither the White House nor Congress they are less in the media spotlight. And these days, with Bush’s lousy poll numbers, the Democratic game plan is to keep quiet and let their political enemies hang themselves.

But a survey of voter attitudes toward various immigration proposals shows that self-identified Democratic voters have similar divisions on the issue to their GOP brethren. And the opposition of the AFL-CIO to “guest worker” legislation advocated by many Democratic leaders shows this schism.

Simply put, the split in American politics over immigration, much as it is on questions about international trade, is sharpest along socioeconomic lines.

The more educated and affluent people are, regardless of whether they are a Democrat, Republican or independent, the less they are inclined to see the need for immigration reform solely to toughen laws and beef up security.

That’s the message from a Quinnipiac University poll of almost 2,000 U.S. voters released in March. The size of the sample almost double the typical 1,000 person national sample allows analysis of differences along socioeconomic and political lines.

On virtually every immigration question, Democrats are less likely than Republicans or independents to back “get-tough” measures. But on most questions the differences along party lines are smaller than they are within members of the same party.

When asked if legal immigration should be kept steady, increased or decreased, 32 percent of Republicans and independents and 35 percent of Democrats favor the status quo.

But analyzing the numbers by party and education shows a different story. Among Republicans with a high school degree or less, 30 percent want to keep immigration at its present level, as do 34 percent of similarly educated Democrats. Yet, 41 percent of both Republican and Democratic college grads feel that way.

Overall, 21 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of Democrats want an increase in immigration. But that 5 point split is less than half the 13-point gap between Democrats with high school educations (18 percent) and those with college degrees (31 percent). The Republican intra-party split is 5 points 17 percent among the least educated and 22 percent among the most educated.

Asked whether Congress should change the law to make it easier for illegal immigrants to become legal workers, the same pattern appears.

There is a 7-point difference in support between Democrats and Republicans _ 44 percent to 37 percent. But among Republicans the gap in support between those with a high-school diploma or less and a college degree or more is 12 points 30 percent to 42 percent. Among Democrats, the difference is 22 points 36 percent among those with high school education compared to 58 percent among those with college degrees.

Presumably, the politicians understand these differences more than the journalists who have created the incomplete conventional wisdom. But the implications of the numbers should not be lost on anyone thinking about running for political office.

The demonstrations in recent weeks, orchestrated by groups opposing legislation that would beef up border enforcement and make it more difficult for those without documents to work or stay in the United States illegally, obscure the widespread public support for such steps.

That is obviously one of the reasons why the prospects for any real change in U.S. immigration policy becoming law this year are slim. But another is that the schism the issue creates in American politics is on both sides of the political aisle.

Peter A. Brown