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What happens after immigrants arrive matters

| Tuesday, April 2, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Sixty-eight percent of voters believe that, when done legally, immigration is good for America. Most voters for years have favored a welcoming policy of immigration. Unlike many issues these days, there is virtually no partisan disagreement.

These facts raise a question that should make everyone in official Washington uncomfortable. If immigration is good for America and there is support across party lines, why can't the politicians figure out a way to come up with something that works?

Part of the problem is that voters don't trust the federal government. Regardless of what laws are passed, few believe the government will even try to secure the border, and that's an essential part of the conversation. Even among supporters of “comprehensive” reform, 64 percent want the border to be secured first before any pathway to citizenship for those here illegally can begin.

None of these dynamics has changed since the immigration reform effort attempted when George W. Bush was in the White House. Some believe the 2012 election results will make it different this time around. After all, the reasoning goes, Republicans can't afford to further antagonize Hispanic voters.

That may end up being the case, but it's far from a sure thing. Advocates on both sides of the issue probably feel the way Charlie Brown did every time Lucy offered to hold the football for him. He knew he'd been burned before, but he really wants to believe it will be different this time around.

The way to avoid that is to move the immigration debate beyond the narrow question of how somebody enters the country. It's time to have a healthy conversation about what happens after newcomers settle here.

Seven out of 10 voters want new immigrants to assimilate and become part of the U.S. civic culture. Obviously, over the centuries, that culture has changed as new immigrants brought new ideas. But the core ideals of Western civilization, the belief in individual freedom, equality and government by consent of the governed have remained at the center of our national life.

To give just one example of how this larger discussion could change the debate, consider what happens if a requirement to add English as the nation's official language is added to a comprehensive reform plan. Overall, 61 percent support that approach. That's a bit higher than support for comprehensive reform without the English language requirement, but the really striking difference can be found in the partisan and ideological details.

With the English language provisions in place, support among Republicans increases by 13 percentage points, to 63 percent. Support among Democrats falls by only five, to 58 percent. And there is virtually no change among unaffiliated voters, at 63 percent.

If nothing else, this highlights the potential to dramatically shift the debate.

Education policy should be part of the discussion, as well. Today, only 19 percent think the schools do a good job of teaching the values of Western civilization to anyone. Dual citizenship, temporary legal residence and other items also should be in the mix.

Washington needs to expand the national political debate: What happens after immigrants get here has a lot to do with how voters will view the laws regarding how they cross the border.

Scott Rasmussen is founder and president of Rasmussen Reports.

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