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What's in a Word? Amnesty

In Thursday night's Democratic debate - the first of this election cycle - one of the moderators read a question from a viewer in Oregon: "Senator Clinton, if you were currently the president, would you defy the majority of American citizens and offer a form of amnesty for illegal aliens?"

Clinton gave a detailed response, even though the premise of the question was inaccurate.

There's little evidence to support the questioner's assertion that most Americans oppose offering illegal immigrants a chance to become U.S. citizens. In fact, most national polls show the opposite.

For example, in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 62 percent supported giving illegal immigrants who already live and work in the U.S. a "chance to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status." About a third in the poll favored deporting them to their native country. These percentages have been basically stable since the Post began asking the question in 2005.

Although a majority of Americans support a path to citizenship, most proponents of the idea avoid the term "amnesty," fearing the word itself might trigger opposition. Interestingly, the public does not appear to be so easily swayed.

When interest in immigration was at a high point last May, CNN conducted a public opinion experiment to test the effect of the word "amnesty" on attitudes about policies toward illegal immigrants.

CNN asked half of its respondents this question:
"Would you favor or oppose a bill that would allow illegal immigrants who have been in this country for more than five years to stay in the U.S. and apply for citizenship if they have a job and pay back taxes?"

The other half of respondents got this one:
Would you favor or oppose a bill that would give amnesty to illegal immigrants who have been in this country for more than five years if they have a job and pay back taxes"

While the results are not identical, both questions had high support. Without the word amnesty, more than eight in 10 supported the measure; with the word "amnesty," seven in 10 supported it.

Full results and complete question wording for the Washington Post-ABC News poll can be found here.

By Jennifer Agiesta  |  April 30, 2007; 3:21 PM ET
Categories:  Post Polls  
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