A new poll shows a solid majority of Kentucky voters support the comprehensive immigration reform bill currently being debated in the U.S. Senate.
The survey conducted by Harper Polling finds 63 percent of Kentuckians favor the so-called ‘Gang of 8’ legislation, with just 20 percent opposed. It also shows that 73 percent of likely voters support a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
Members of Kentucky’s federal delegation have been at the center of the immigration debate thus far, with Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth working on the House version and Republican Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul both saying the Senate bill will need to be changed.
But observers note the high percentage of those in the state who support the principles of the ‘Gang of 8’ bill illustrates the outcome is brighter than previous attempts to reform the system.
“When you look at a number like that when it’s that high it makes you think there’s a chance something can actually get passed. And when Kentucky members of Congress and our two senators see this kind of approval back in their home state and back in their home districts it’s going to increase the likelihood of them wanting to vote for it,” says former Republican Secretary of State Trey Grayson, who is director of the Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
Overhauling the U.S. immigration system cleared its first hurdle earlier this week when McConnell declined to filibuster its consideration, thus letting it sail to the full Senate floor.
He still criticized the bill for having “serious flaws” in regards to border security and government benefits for those who came to the U.S. illegally.
The legislation does include provisions that would force undocumented immigrants to pay a penalty and learn English before becoming U.S. citizens, however. That could give conservative lawmakers needed room to back the bill.
“Historically, amnesty has been a four-letter word for Republicans,” says Grayson. “If I’m a conservative and I see this kind of support and that the public doesn’t see this as amnesty it makes me think maybe I have some cover to vote for it.”
Around 90 percent of those polled believe it is important the federal government fix the system, and those in favor of the legislation are out spending opponents in media ads.
“For years I have believed Kentuckians were on the right side of the tracks,” says Bonifacio Aleman, executive director of Kentucky Jobs With Justice, which supports the bill. “What everyone agrees on is we cannot deport 11 million people. And for many Kentuckians we see the direct effects of a broken immigration system and we want one that works in America, and this is one of the only chances.”
Still, many argue the measure is nothing more than amnesty such as Americans for Lawful Immigration Solutions Today found Luis Pozzolo, who told WFPL last month that provisions about border security and mandatory English are “just promises.”
And the GOP remains somewhat divided due to concerns the measure doesn’t properly secure the country’s borders. Attempts to put in those stricter border provisions in the bill has been an early source of conflict in the Senate.
Paul is being heralded as a possible swing vote who is walking a particularly thin tightrope.
Kentucky’s junior senator has said he would vote for the ‘Gang of 8’ bill if the Senate adds a ‘trust but verify’ amendment that would require Congress to hold annual votes on border security.
Since last fall, Paul has tried to reach out to Hispanic groups to embrace the GOP message while proposing border provisions that could derail the bill.
Yarmuth, who sits on the bipartisan group negotiating the House version of the bill, says Kentucky’s two GOP senators need to pay attention to the survey’s results. The Democratic congressman also points out how poorly GOP did among Hispanic voters in the 2012 presidential election should be a motivator.
“I would tell Sens. McConnell and Paul that there is no risk in being supportive of comprehensive immigration reform and in fact there’s considerable political benefit to supporting it. And I think you would be ingratiating yourself to a constituency you have very little support in right now,” he says.
Among the more telling findings from Harper survey, 61 percent of respondents say they would be more likely to vote for an elected officials who supports the ‘Gang of 8’ measure.
“You want to vote for bills you agree with on policy, but the politics are an important consideration,” says Grayson. “What’s interesting here is the longer the debate has gone on it seems like the numbers are getting a little better.”