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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama and Cruz Clash on Immigration

President Obama and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz made seemingly conflicting statements about public opinion on the president’s plan to address immigration issues in the U.S.

Obama claimed that “most Americans support the types of reforms I’ve talked about tonight,” in a Nov. 20 address to the nation. Cruz, meanwhile, claimed that “this last election was a referendum on amnesty” and that voters had sent a clear message opposing it.

Obama is right that opinion polls show a majority of Americans support allowing immigrants now living in the country illegally to stay. But fewer Americans support using executive action to accomplish that.

Cruz, on the other hand, is wrong to say that the 2014 election results show that Americans rejected “amnesty” — at least how Cruz defines it. He considers “amnesty” to mean providing a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Exit poll data show exactly the opposite.

 Obama Right, Mostly

Obama’s announced immigration plan would allow parents who have lived in the U.S. illegally for at least five years, and who also have children who are citizens or legal permanent residents, to remain in the country temporarily, for three years, without threat of deportation, if they pay taxes and pass a background check. The executive action would not apply to anyone who came to the U.S. recently, or who comes in the future, and it would not allow individuals to remain in the country permanently, or grant them citizenship or other benefits reserved for citizens.

A number of opinion polls support Obama’s claim that “most Americans support the types of reforms I’ve talked about tonight.”

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted from Nov. 14 to Nov. 17 found that 57 percent of respondents either strongly favored or somewhat favored allowing “foreigners staying illegally in the United States the opportunity to eventually become legal American citizens.” The level of support rose to 74 percent if those people had to “pay a fine, any back taxes, pass a security background check, and take other required steps” to gain citizenship. Obama’s plan doesn’t even go that far.

Likewise, a Pew Research Center poll conducted from Oct. 15 to Oct. 20 found that 71 percent of respondents said that people currently living in the U.S. illegally should be allowed to stay “if certain requirements are met.”

That’s in addition to a CBS News/New York Times poll from Sept. 12 to Sept. 15 that showed 63 percent of those surveyed said that illegal U.S. residents should be allowed to remain in the country.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points. The Pew Research Center poll had a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points. And the CBS News/New York Times poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Republican leaders, such as House Speaker John Boehner, have countered that Obama is “ignoring the will of the American people.” And there’s a little something to that as well.

That’s because while polls show majority support for allowing those here illegally to stay, they show less public support for Obama taking executive action to address immigration issues without Congress.

The same NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll cited earlier found that 48 percent of respondents disapproved of Obama taking executive action, or leaned that way, while 38 percent approved of executive action or leaned in that direction.

Similarly, a USA Today poll conducted from Nov. 13 to Nov. 16, with a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points, showed that 46 percent of those asked said Obama should wait for the new Congress in January to pass immigration legislation. On the flip side, 42 percent said that the president should act alone this year to deal with immigration. Another 10 percent of respondents were unsure and 2 percent refused to answer.

The CBS News/New York Times poll from September did find that 51 percent thought Obama should take action if Congress did not. But that may or may not represent “most Americans,” since the poll’s margin of error was 3 percent.

 Cruz Wrong

Cruz, during an interview with Fox News host Megyn Kelly, more than once said that “this last election was a referendum on amnesty” and that the clear message was “we don’t want amnesty.” It wasn’t, according to exit poll results.

Election voters, by a margin of 57 percent to 39 percent, said those living in the U.S. illegally but working should be offered legal status, according to the exit poll conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool, a consortium of news organizations. The gap is also greater than the margin of error of 3 percentage points to 4 percentage points.

Plus, just 14 percent of voters polled said that illegal immigration was “the most important” issue facing the country today, which also undercuts Cruz’s claim. Voters were given only four choices, and immigration ranked third behind the economy (45 percent) and health care (25 percent).

— D’Angelo Gore