Immigration-sanity stalwart Rick Oltman wrote an immigration-focused post-election piece in 2010 titled Polls are polls and pols are pols. The ultimate poll is Election Day. Rick's right, of course, but—unfortunately—today's House Republican leadership seems determined to do something disastrously stupid on immigration before this year's Election Day. Likely, they're influenced in part by cooked polls (i.e. polls aimed at getting the answers from respondents that the polls' sponsors crave).
Jon Feere, a legal-policy expert at the Center for Immigration Studies [CIS] examined the question on illegal immigration in a recent Fox News poll that purported to reveal mass enthusiasm (68%) for mass amnesty. In a CIS blog entry (Fox News Publishes Push Poll, Pushes Amnesty, January 24, 2014), he wrote about how the poll actually demonstrated essentially nothing.
It's probably best to simply reproduce Feere's careful analysis, in which he pointed out quite effectively the pollster's subtle chicanery. So the core 2/3 of his blog article is below; embedded links are in the original.
The question and available responses are worded as follows:
Which of the following comes closest to your view about what government policy should be toward illegal immigrants currently in the United States? Should the government ...
1) Send all illegal immigrants back to their home country
2) Have a guest worker program that allows immigrants to remain in the United States to work, but only for a limited amount of time
3) Allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country and eventually qualify for U.S. citizenship, but only if they meet certain requirements like paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check
4) Don't know
The pollsters found that 15 percent support option 1, while only 13 percent support option 2, and 68 percent support option 3. Three percent answered "Don't know".
Of the answer options, the poll really attempts to frame illegal immigration as a choice between Option 1 (enforcement) and option 3 (amnesty). The guestworker option and the "Don't Know" option received the least support. Of course, even the guestworker response is flawed in that it explains guestworkers will only remain in the country "for a limited time" when, in reality, there is nothing more permanent than a temporary guestworker.
The first option, which might be described as the pro-enforcement option, is a nine-word-long response: "Send all illegal immigrants back to their home country." It's simple, straightforward, and does not leave anything to the imagination. But it also may come across as harsh and lacking enough nuance to some respondents. If you are a pollster that does not want respondents to pick option 1, such attributes are a good thing.
Option 3, the pro-legalization option, is quite different. If the pollster were interested in it paralleling option 1, it would been shortened to read, "Allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country." The rest of the response would have been eliminated. That would make the answer choice just as straightforward as option 1, it would be similar in length, and it would have had a similar lack of nuance.
Instead, option 3 is 32 words long — over three times the length of the pro-enforcement option — and includes squishy language that lets the respondent fill in the blanks with whatever he can imagine, allowing him to eliminate any perceived harshness or lack of nuance. It also includes references to popular ideas (like paying back taxes and learning English, even though those provisions are not in the Senate amnesty bill). This construction ultimately makes the pro-legalization option appear to be "the right choice."
The pro-legalization response includes two very problematic open-ended clauses, and most polls purporting to show wide public support for amnesty suffer from similar defects. The phrase "eventually qualify" could mean anything, and each respondent will assume what he feels is best, making the answer choice more palatable. Some respondents might hear that phrase and assume one year, while others might assume 15 years. If the pollsters were to include an estimate, it might have a significant impact on the poll results. Without specificity, there is no way to determine what the respondents were thinking.
The second problematic clause is "meet certain requirements". The poll gives the two examples that have never existed in any amnesty proposal ("pay back taxes" and "learn English"), but the wording leaves it to the respondent to imagine any type of "requirement" that he needs to justify the idea of legalizing illegal aliens. Again, this makes the response very attractive. Some respondents may think, "Yes, I'd support legalization but only if one of those requirements is proving that the person has never stolen someone's Social Security number for a job." Obviously, that would disqualify millions of illegal aliens. Another respondent might think, "Yes, but only if one of those requirements is paying $100,000 to legalize." Again, that's never going to happen in the real world. The point is that even though the results are being sold as indicating public support for the Senate amnesty bill, in actuality the poll may indicate something quite different.
And why not some nuance in the first option? Instead of the simplistic "Send all illegal immigrants back to their home country", why not "Send all illegal immigrants back to their home country if they have engaged in ID fraud, have used a stolen Social Security number to obtain work, or are likely to end up on public assistance"? It would be similar in length to the pro-legalization option. And it would make respondents think about the issue a little more and likely discourage some from choosing the pro-legalization option, fearing that support for legalization would indicate support for ID theft. Obviously this is problematic for pollsters creating a push poll.
It seems that amnesty advocates and their pollsters cannot ask straightforward questions. They know that if they were to do so, public sentiment against doubling legal immigration and legalizing illegal aliens would become obvious. So they resort to writing the same push polls with problematic wording over and over and over.