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Political philosopher John Rawls famously argued that democratic deliberation should aspire not just to political deals based on expediency and short-term self-interest (what he called a modus vivendi), but rather to policy agreements based on affirmations of shared values and goals. In our polarized and often paralyzed political environment, this higher aspiration has seemed fully out of reach, especially on important major policy issues. Against all odds, immigration reform is poised to be that rarest of rarities: an issue that enjoys majority support, at the level of both policy and values, across partisan and religious lines.
A major new national survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with the Brookings Institution shows that, given three options, more than six-in-ten (63 percent) Americans support allowing immigrants currently living in the country illegally to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, compared to 14 percent who support allowing them to become permanent legal residents but not citizens, and 21 percent who say we should identify and deport them. Support for a path to citizenship is remarkably broad, and includes majorities of Democrats (71 percent), independents (64 percent), and Republicans (53 percent), as well as majorities of every major religious group, including more conservative groups such as white evangelical Protestants (56 percent).
It’s clear that the engine of the recent repositioning of the GOP by party leadership is pragmatic, spurred by defeat in the 2012 presidential elections and the growing electoral clout of Hispanic voters. Nearly half (45 percent) of the country, including four-in-ten Republicans and Tea Party members, believe that the GOP’s position on immigration hurt the party in the recent elections. But it’s noteworthy that this political reality check has motivated even some of the staunchest opponents of immigration reform to rethink not only policy but also values. For example, Tea Party standard-bearer Senator Rand Paul, in a remarkable shift, is replacing references to fences and helicopters and an emphasis on deportation with new appeals to the values of “prudence, compassion, and thrift” and at least a strong implication that these values point toward a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country.
With this values turn, Senator Paul has arrived much closer both to the policies and the values that Americans overall, including rank-and-file Republicans, say should guide immigration policy. Paul’s characterization of these values under the headings of prudence and compassion is not far off the mark in describing the values Americans say are most important guides to constructing immigration reform policy. Related to prudence, approximately eight-in-10 say the values of promoting national security (84 percent), ensuring fairness to taxpayers (77 percent), and enforcing the rule of law (77 percent) are extremely or very important values. At the same time, Americans rate values related to compassion roughly as high: 84 percent cite keeping families together, and 82 percent name protecting the dignity of every person as extremely or very important moral guides for immigration reform policy. Moreover, nearly seven-in-10(69 percent) cite the Golden Rule (defined as “providing immigrants the same opportunities I would want if my family were immigrating to the U.S.”) as extremely or very important.
To be sure, self-identified Republicans are more likely to favor values related to prudence, while self-identified Democrats are more likely to favor values related to compassion on this issue. But in the general population, these partisan differences are relatively modest and look more like differences of accent rather than outright disagreement. For example, 81 percent of Democrats (compared to 94 percent of Republicans) say promoting national security is very important, and 81 percent of Republicans (compared to 88 percent of Democrats) say keeping families together is very important. The new survey data suggests that the significant shift we’re beginning to see among Republican Congressional leaders on policy and values is bringing them into better alignment with rank-and-file Republicans on this issue. If that happens, we may get an immigration reform bill that will present an unusual moment to be savored in a deliberative democracy: where policy outcomes reflect not just political expediency but shared values.