Immigration Deal May Bring Relief, Create Peril Politically

If it flies in Congress, this week's immigration deal could provide a sliver of welcome relief to President Bush and the Democrats in Congress alike. But it's not without risk, especially for the president's party.

Public support is there: Immigration reform is one of those fairly rare political issues in which attitudes cross partisan and ideological lines. Sizable majorities across the board say the United States is not doing enough to keep illegal immigrants out of the country; at the same time, smaller but still significant majorities support giving those already here a chance to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status.

There are differences among groups. Support for a citizenship program falls from 77 percent among liberals to 56 percent among conservatives. But those are majorities in both.

It's also an issue on which both Bush and Democrats can use some help. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll last month, 64 percent of Americans disapproved of how Bush was handling immigration, and 60 percent disapproved of how the Democrats were dealing with it -- poor marks on both sides.

Yet the immigration deal does carry risk.

On one hand, if it crashes, it could reinforce the image of Washington as a place gripped by gridlock.

On the other, if it becomes law, some Republicans candidates could feel a sting. That's because the issue's salience, a critical factor in any political equation, peaks among opponents of a citizenship program; while they're in the minority, they're also much more likely to call immigration a top issue in deciding their vote. And those opponents disproportionately are conservatives and Republicans.

Specifically, in an ABC/Post poll a year ago (LINK), among people who favored a citizenship program for illegals, 54 percent said immigration would be an important issue in their 2006 vote. But among those who opposed any work program, many more, 79 percent, call it a top issue.

Among conservative Republicans in that poll, immigration ranked fourth on the list of top issues in the 2006 election, behind terrorism, Iraq and the economy. Among liberal Democrats, by contrast, immigration ranked last in voting importance.

That same poll found, perhaps surprisingly, that the public's main objection about illegal immigrants is not about jobs or security, but about taxes and services. A third of Americans said their main concern is that illegals use more public services than they pay for in taxes, considerably more than cited any other chief concern. That perception -- right or wrong -- presumably would be addressed by a citizenship program like the one now on the table.