Americans today are far less worried about the "threat" posed by large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the country than they were two decades ago, according to a new Chicago Council on Global Affairs public opinion survey, which highlights a long-term trend of decreasing public concern over immigration.
For its recent report, the council gauged the public's "threat perception" concerning immigration in both May and October, conducting surveys during and after the national spotlight was on the surge of unaccompanied children from Central American countries crossing the Mexican border into the United States.
Just 39 percent of Americans polled this May said they considered large numbers of immigrants and refugees entering the United States to be a "critical threat," the lowest recorded percentage since 1994, when the Chicago Council on Global Affairs conducted its first survey on the topic. The October poll showed 43 percent of Americans viewed immigration as a critical threat, which is not statistically different than the all-time low in May, according to the council.
In the May poll, 47 percent of survey respondents also said controlling and reducing illegal immigration was a "very important goal," down from 72 percent in 1994. In the October poll, 50 percent of Americans surveyed said the issue was a very important goal.
Cathleen Farrell, communications director of the National Immigration Forum, which was not involved with the poll, said the survey results are not surprising, because the debate over immigration "has become mainstream."
"Pastors are talking to their congregations about immigrants and immigration," she said. "Law enforcement officials are telling us that reforming the immigration system will help them keep communities safer, and business leaders realize that they need immigrants and immigration to keep the economy growing. So it's no longer just immigrants who are caring about immigration, but the average American is actually accepting this as not just a fact of life, but probably something very positive in his or her life."
Among other findings, the council's new survey, conducted by GfK Custom Research, shows the gap between Democrats and Republicans on immigration issues have widened since 1998, when polling "revealed little distance between partisan groups on questions of immigration as a 'critical threat' and the importance of 'controlling and reducing illegal immigration,'" the report reads.
"But since the late 90s, Republicans have stayed about the same. Their concern hasn't fallen off at all," noted Craig Kafura, senior program officer at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. "In contrast, Democrats have become far less concerned about immigration, and they've become far less likely to say immigration is a critical threat."
Dave Bender, executive director of the American Council of Engineering Companies of Illinois, said Democrats have far greater diversity in both the electorate and leadership in Congress than Republicans, which could be a reason for the divide between the two groups.
"I believe Republicans see and hear from other national Republicans who do not share a view that is, quite frankly, seen as compassionate or understanding" on the issue, he said. "That is part of the problem you see in that survey."
The poll comes ahead of President Barack Obama's major speech tonight announcing details of his much anticipated executive order on immigration reform, which he will sign Friday.
Obama decided to tackle immigration reform with his executive powers following long-standing inaction on the issue in the GOP-led House. The Senate in June of 2013 passed bipartisan immigration reform legislation, but House Republicans have refused to consider it.
There are reports that Obama will use his executive authority to protect as many as five million undocumented immigrants in the United States from the threat of deportation. The plan will also reportedly increase border security and expand opportunities allowing undocumented immigrants to work in the country legally.
Farrell believes undocumented parents of children with legal status in the county will be at least one group that is eligible for some form of deferred action under Obama's plan. There is also speculation that additional assistance will be provided to those with high-tech skills. The age limit for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) beneficiaries might also be lifted, Farrell said. The DACA program grants a two-year protection against deportation for immigrants who came to the United States prior to the age of 16.
Parents of DACA recipients as well as agricultural workers are expected to be left out of the plan, Farrell said.
Congressional Republicans are not happy with Obama's decision to go at immigration reform alone. There is the possibility that Republicans will attempt to use the budget process to defund Obama's immigration reforms.
Bender, a Republican, said Obama's executive action will "obviously be seen as hostile by Republicans, and that is making me really on edge on that."
"I'm concerned what this will do to engage both sides," he continued. "I think this almost seals that it would be very difficult to engage both sides for future discussion on this issue, and the people who get hurt are all of us ... This type of divide is just not good at all."
Farrell said Obama's executive action "actually sets up the Republicans quite nicely to take the credit for reform, if they choose to work on this issue and resolve it."
"Clearly, it could be very divisive," she continued. "But it could also work the other way."