Newswise — Americans appear more willing to support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants if that path includes serving in the United States military, according to new research from political scientists at the University of Washington.
The positive effects of military service on public opinion are strongest among Republicans and conservatives often viewed as opposed to immigration reforms seeking to expand access to citizenship. That support also remains strong when the military service pathway is paired with less-popular options such as requiring would-be citizens to pursue a college education.
The research, from UW political science associate professors Sophia Jordán Wallace and Geoffrey Wallace, was published in March in the journal International Migration Review; their paper is titled "Who Gets to Have a DREAM? Examining Public Support for Immigration Reform."
"We find that the military pathway is very convincing, even if you pair it with something else," said Jordán Wallace.
"That's really important, because what it tells us is that there is so much benefit and value assigned to military service, it's able to essentially carry another pathway that people wouldn't necessarily be as inclined to support."
Their findings may have implications for crafting immigration legislation that could attract enough bipartisan support to pass both houses of Congress. Immigration is also among the leading issues in the coming 2020 presidential race.
The DREAM Act (short for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act), taken up by Congress first in 2001 and voted on in 2010, offered a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16, had passed background checks and lived in the country for at least five years. Eligible immigrants were further required to have completed at least two years of college education or military service. In 2010 the legislation passed the House but died in the Senate.
Public opinion polls on the DREAM Act, Jordán Wallace said, have tended to ask whether or how strongly respondents support it. "But that doesn't really tell us what the component or pathway is that people do support."
The researchers wondered: "What are strategies that can be employed if your goal is to pass immigration reform in the Trump era? Might you have to frame things in a specific way to build a coalition for support?"
To study this, they contracted for survey space with the Harvard-administered Congressional Cooperative Election Study. Of this nationally representative survey of 20,000 overall respondents, their study, with questions tailored to their inquiries, involved 1,000 respondents and was conducted between November 2011 and January 2012.
Respondents in the control group were told only that Congress had recently considered legislation to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for citizenship if they were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents, but did not specifically mention the DREAM Act or any additional limiting criteria.
The survey then asked, "Do you support or oppose that such people should be allowed to become citizens?” Respondents answered on a four-point scale ranging from "strongly support" to "strongly oppose" extending citizenship to this immigrant group.
"Because the study centered on attitudes toward immigration reform," the researchers write, "we considered this the most appropriate control
group since it provided a broader policy to which each of the more restrictive treatment conditions could be compared."
The control condition was compared to support among three treatment conditions stating additional delimiting criteria, or possible pathways to citizenship. These were "enroll in college," "join the military" or "join the military or enroll in college," the latter of which mirrors the configuration of the 2010 DREAM Act.
Across the entire sample group, the researchers write, about 65% of all respondents "either supported or strongly supported" a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who came to the U.S. as children.
"Not surprisingly," they write, "Republicans are much less supportive of immigration reform in general, with just over 50%, overall, supporting a pathway to citizenship compared with almost 80% among Democrats."
The researchers tasked themselves with learning "whether respondents were more supportive of certain subgroups — military service only, college only, or military and college combined — within this undocumented population than others."
The findings were seen, the researchers said, in the difference between answers from respondents in the control group and those in the three choices.
The results, they said, showed a clear preference for military service as a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth: Those given the military-only option were 11 percentage points more likely to support the immigration reform compared with the control group, 72% versus 61%.
Wallace and Jordán Wallace also found that this effect is strongest among "those groups who are traditionally viewed as being most opposed to immigration reforms expanding access to citizenship," in particular Republicans and conservatives.
- Republicans were 25 percentage points more likely to support a military-only option than the control group (65% versus 40%), and conservatives 23 percent more likely (62% versus 39%).
- When education is combined with military service, support among Republicans and conservatives still saw a 21% increase over the control group for Republican respondents, and a 17% increase among conservatives.
The findings, the researchers write, "(are) consistent with the view that the public is willing to reward those who have volunteered to serve directly in defense of the country. The soldier-civilian imperative used by numerous marginalized veteran groups in the past to claim greater citizenship rights shows several signs of having a welcome audience among the wider citizenry."
To get immigration legislation passed, Jordán Wallace said, "It's going to be critical to think about: Are there ways that you could convince Republicans in Congress to move forward to support a bill? Because even if every single Democrat in the Senate votes in favor, you still need some Republicans, and the question is, how do you do that? There are going to be more strategic ways to frame legislation that will appeal, I think, to those members. That is something that's worth thinking about if your goal is actual passage of meaningful immigration reform."
It's possible, she noted, that the activists originally promoting the DREAM Act — often on college campuses — may have felt it was "too high of a burden" to suggest military service, which historically has disproportionately enrolled and thus endangered people of color as a pathway to citizenship.
But they might have been more successful turning opposition into approval had they "at least combined college with military in a way that would have appealed to Republicans or conservatives."
Although the survey was conducted several years ago, the researchers argue the findings remain relevant for the present moment as public attitudes toward immigration, as well as the military, have remained relatively stable.
Geoffrey Wallace said, "There has been a tradition not only in the U.S. but in other societies as well — the citizen-soldier ideal — that citizenship brings certain benefits but also certain responsibilities, foremost among these is a martial one. And that was one of the reasons for conscription — not only in terms of national military capabilities, it was also to build citizens."
Even with conscription long past and an all-volunteer army today in the U.S. and often elsewhere too, he added, "What we find is that, especially among Republicans and the public writ large — among the existing citizenry — the notion of the citizen-soldier ideal still resonates."