By Chas Sisk
Tennesseans have mixed opinions about immigration, with a majority saying foreigners have become a burden to the United States while also opposing a crackdown that would send illegal immigrants back to their home countries.
About 70 percent of Tennesseans believe immigrants take jobs from American citizens and use up tax dollars, according to a statewide poll by Vanderbilt University.
More than 60 percent said they favor giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship rather than arresting them and forcing them to leave. Most Tennesseans also said they support granting citizenship to all children born on U.S. soil, regardless of where their parents are from, a principle often referred to as birthright citizenship.
The results suggest that even as they hold negative views about the recent wave of immigration to the United States, many Tennesseans do not support extraordinary measures to remove people who are in the country illegally.
"It’s something that we just need to accept," Will Shuff, owner of the 12South Taproom said in an interview with The Tennessean conducted separately from the poll. "We need to find a solution that works for everybody. If we just totally eliminated that, it’s going to be dramatic."
The poll found general agreement among Tennesseans on how to address illegal immigration, including on major policy questions such as amnesty, mass deportations and birthright citizenship.
Only about 1 percent of Tennesseans support giving illegal immigrants citizenship without any requirements or amnesty, but only about 36 percent back deportations.
Tennesseans instead expressed support for heftier penalties on businesses that use illegal immigrants. More than 78 percent of Tennesseans told pollsters they would support fines on employers that hire illegal immigrants, and 62 percent said they would back jail time for the practice.
"I wouldn’t mind a little fining," said Alvin Riedl, a barber at the Granny White Barber Shop nearly Lipscomb University. "Seven days wouldn’t be bad either. Forty-eight hours even."
Education a factor
Tennesseans’ attitudes toward immigration varied somewhat based on their level of education.
More than 80 percent of people with a high school education or less said immigrants are a burden on American society, a view shared by only 47 percent of those with college degrees.
Otherwise, skepticism toward the benefits of immigration appeared to span the political spectrum, cutting across race, age and gender.
A majority of liberals, nearly 56 percent, told pollsters that they view immigrants as a burden, a view shared by 64 percent of moderates and 80 percent of conservatives. About two-thirds of Tennesseans less than 45 years of age see immigrants as burdensome, as do 72 percent of Tennesseans older than 65 and 78 percent of Tennesseans of ages in between.
"We’re good people that really want to push ourselves forward," Celeste Nuñez, a 24-year-old immigrant from Mexico, said as she waited in a Catholic Charities office on Nolensville Pike for help completing her citizenship application. "I think they really should give us a chance, not just Hispanics but all kinds of people."
Yet, majorities of Tennesseans of all ages told pollsters that they favor creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. That solution was favored by Democrats, Republicans and independents, and by 52 percent of respondents who identified themselves as members of the tea party movement.
"I’ve got immigrants who live right next to me, and their good neighbors," said Margaret Timmons, a 77-year-old retired nurse technician from Antioch. "They don’t bother me at all. … I think something should be done because they got to make a living just like anybody."
Several Middle Tennesseans said the citizenship requirements appear to be too difficult, raising unnecessary hurdles for immigrants, even those who are in the country legally.
"They need to give some permits to work," said Alfonso Martinez, a 26-year-old painter from Mexico who was naturalized in December. "All people want is to have drivers’ licenses and get jobs."
More than two-thirds of the people who called themselves tea partiers said they oppose granting citizenship to all children born in the U.S., but more generally, birthright citizenship drew majority support from Republicans and Democrats.
But support was widespread for tougher penalties on those who employ illegal immigrants. More than 85 percent of independents supported fines, as did 78 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats. A majority of liberals, 63 percent, backed fines, as did 79 percent of moderates and 81 percent of conservatives.
Even the suggestion of jail time was greeted with support. About two-thirds of conservatives and liberals supported sending employers who hire illegal immigrants to jail, as did 55 percent of moderates.
"Overall, Tennesseans are pretty unified in their perception of immigration," Clinton said. "It’s not a Republican or Democratic question. Most of the time, they’re on the same side of the issue."
Contact Chas Sisk at 615-259-8283 or firstname.lastname@example.org