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Kevin McCarthy has the least popular possible position on immigration

A slight underestimate of the number of Americans who agree with Kevin McCarthy on immigration.
A slight underestimate of the number of Americans who agree with Kevin McCarthy on immigration.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call

It's ironic that House Republicans replaced outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who many of them believe was defeated in a primary because of his insufficient opposition to immigration reform, with new House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Cantor was highly resistant to "amnesty," and wasn't willing to stake out a position on what to do with the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently in the US. McCarthy does have a position — it's just one that only a sliver of the American public shares.

In January, before House Republican leadership released its principles for immigration reform, McCarthy told local television station KBAK/KBFX: "In my personal belief, I think it'll go with legal status that will allow you to work and pay taxes." But extremely few people actually support "legal status" that doesn't result in citizenship for the undocumented. Most Americans want unauthorized immigrants to become citizens, either immediately or eventually; most of the rest want them deported.

Immigration_pew

Above is a graphic from a Pew Research Center's study. Pew asked voters whether they believe that unauthorized immigrants who met certain requirements should ever be eligible for citizenship, or not. Then, people who said immigrants shouldn't ever be eligible for citizenship were asked whether there should be a national effort to deport unauthorized immigrants, or not.

What they found: the overwhelming majority of Americans either want unauthorized immigrants to be eligible for citizenship (now or eventually), or want them deported. There's no real middle ground.

There's a persistent belief in Washington that there's an easy "compromise" on the question of what to do with America's 11 million unauthorized immigrants: give them legal status instead of deporting them, but don't allow them to pursue citizenship. But the Pew poll shows (as have other polls) that there isn't actually a constituency for that position.

If lawmakers come up with a plan that extends any legal status to unauthorized immigrants, they'll anger the 17 percent of Americans who want a plan to deport them instead. If they come up with a plan that extends legal status that doesn't include the possibility of eventual citizenship, they'll anger the 76 percent of Americans who think unauthorized immigrants should be eligible for citizenship at some point.

That's why Kevin McCarthy's "personal" position on immigration can't translate into a viable plan for reform. And if the House Majority Leader can't tell how unpopular his own position is, it bodes poorly for the ability of House leadership to get a bill to the floor.