A Question on CNN's New Immigration Poll Raises Concerns
by The Opportunity Agenda, Fri May 28, 2010 at 03:34:52 PM EDT
CNN/Opinion Research released earlier today a new telephone survey of U.S. adults on immigration. One forced choice question asking respondents to indicate what they thought the main focus of the U.S. government ought to be with respect to the immigration issue, appears to contradict findings that a number of other public opinion surveys have reported over the past two years. Some may wrongly interpret the CNN poll as showing surprisingly high support (60%) for deportation of "illegal" immigrants and low support for a pathway to citizenship (38%). Recent surveys conducted by CBS News, AP, Pew Research and others find support for legalization or a pathway to citizenship to be in the high 50%s and support for deportation to be just above 30%. Why does the CNN appear to be different?
A closer look at the CNN question reveals conceptual and methodological concerns with respect to the question and in particular, the answer categories and its structure. These issues can lead some to misinterpret the results.
The CNN question is worded as follows:
"What should be the main focus of the U.S. government in dealing with the issue of illegal immigration --  developing a plan that would allow illegal immigrants who have jobs to become legal U.S. residents, or  developing a plan for stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. and for deporting those already here?" (bolding edit for impact)
 Allow to become legal residents_38%
 Stop illegals and deport those here_60%
 No opinion_2%
Of particular concern is the second answer choice offered to survey respondents("developing a plan for stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. and for deporting those already here") because it contains two different concepts: a. stop the flow of "illegal" immigrants, and b. deport those already here.
When an answer choice combines two concepts in one and does not leave the respondent the choice to answer each independently, one cannot know for certain to which of the concepts the respondent is reacting. In this case, people choosing the second answer choice might favor only a plan for stopping future "illegal" immigration or only deportation or both. Summing the responses of these three subgroups can result in larger net support for this answer than if these two concepts were tested individually.
It's notable that in a similar question in a Gallup/USA Today Poll (May 2010) where the above two concepts were not combined, the survey found that 53% support a plan for "halting the flow of illegal immigrants to the US" (no mention of deportation here) to 45% who say that the main focus should be on developing a plan to deal with immigrants who are currently in the US illegally.
In addition to the answer choice concerns about the CNN question, there is another methodological issue with both the CNN and the Gallup force choice question format because the immigration solutions that they test against each other are not mutually exclusive: Developing a plan for stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S and a plan that would allow illegal immigrants who have jobs to become legal U.S. residents. A better approach woulld be a survey question that allows respondents to choose both or neither answers. If done so, perhaps we would have seen a different response distribution.
Finally, other public opinion surveys further support the notion that the results of the CNN question could be spurious. In general, polls show that more than 70% of Americans think that the U.S should do more to prevent "illegal" immigrants from coming to the country, while more than 50% support legalization or a pathway to citizenship for "illegal" immigrants, and only about 30% support deportation of those already in the U.S. (Relevant surveys listed below.)
Understanding what the public thinks, especially on an issue as complex as immigration, can be a difficult task. We need to make sure that any attempt to examine the public mind, and report on it, should be fair and methodologically sound.
- 59% support providing a legal way for illegal immigrants to become citizens 39% who oppose it
- 81% say that the U.S. Gov should be doing more to keep illegal immigrants from entering and staying in the country
- 43% "Illegal" immigrants should be allowed to stay in their jobs, and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship
- 21%: should be allowed to stay in their jobs only as temporary guest workers, but NOT to apply for U.S. citizenship;
- 32% say that illegal immigrant should leave their jobs and the U.S.
- 78% The U.S. should be doing more along its borders to keep illegal immigrants from crossing into this country
Pew Research Center May 2009:
63% support providing a way for illegal immigrants currently in the country to gain legal citizenship if theypass background checks, pay fine and have jobs (to 34% who oppose)
ABC NEWS APRIL 2009:
74% strongly (59) or somewhat (15) believe that the U.S. is not doing enough to keep illegal immigrants from coming into this country.