By RONNIE ELLIS / CNHI News Service
FRANKFORT — While the U.S. Senate debates immigration reform, newly released polling indicates a strong majority of Kentuckians support reform — if the question is framed in terms of increasing border security and tightening requirements for citizenship.
Kentucky isn’t usually seen as ground zero in the immigration debate, located in the center of the country — geographically if not politically. But it plays an important role because one Kentucky Republican Senator, Mitch McConnell, is the minority leader in the Senate, while the other, Rand Paul, is seen as a key vote in creating political cover for conservative Republicans in the U.S. House.
And the state’s lone Democratic Congressman, John Yarmuth of Louisville, is a member of the “Gang of Eight” in the House, four Republicans and four Democrats chosen by their respective party leaders to craft the House version of an immigration reform bill.
Last year’s presidential election brought into stark relief the changing national attitudes and changing demographics of the national electorate and that has made reform good politics for both Democrats and Republicans, Yarmuth said.
Democrats, including President Barack Obama, strongly favor reform and Republican congressional leaders view it as a way for their party to show a kinder face to Hispanic voters who provided a crucial margin for Obama’s reelection.
Yarmuth said the Kentucky polling mirrors national poll results he’s seen and he’s optimistic reform will pass the Senate. Yarmuth hopes the House will then pass its plan and the two chambers will try to reconcile differences in a conference committee.
Senate Democrats want to pass a bill with a strong majority — some have set a goal of 70 votes — to pressure the more conservative and Republican-controlled House to go along. Yarmuth wouldn’t predict vote totals but he thinks the measure will pass the Senate.
“I think when the dust settles, I think the political motivation on both sides to pass reform is actually stronger in the Senate than in the House,” Yarmuth said.
McConnell this week voted to bring the bill to the floor for debate but he said it has “serious flaws” and he expects it to be amended.
Paul wants to amend the bill to require an annual certification that border security is effective before continuing with other provisions of the bill. Paul, who has presidential ambitions, has called for the Republican Party to be more receptive to minorities. That’s fueled some unhappiness among his conservative base and his proposed amendment may be one way of mollifying them.
The new poll, conducted by Harper Polling and paid for by three groups supportive of reform (Partnership for a New American Economy, Alliance for Citizenship and Republicans for Immigration Reform), shows 63 percent of Kentucky respondents strongly or somewhat support the proposed bill.
The poll surveyed 501 likely voters; 41 percent were Republican; 50 percent Democrats; and 9 percent independents or affiliated with other parties. The poll was conducted June 2 and 3 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.38 percent.
The polling contradicts polling by anti-immigration groups conducted in Kentucky in April which may suggest changing attitudes as people learn more about the proposals to reform the immigration system.
But it also probably reflects how the questions are posed. The April polling used the word “amnesty” in many questions and suggested immigrants take American jobs during a period of high unemployment.
Yarmuth said that’s not an accurate picture of immigrants’ economic impact. He points out the bill is supported by both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and he said many Kentucky farmers rely on immigrant labor because they can’t find local, temporary farm labor.
H.H. Barlow, a dairy farmer, has repeatedly advertised in his local newspaper for farm labor without success.
“Immigrant labor is absolutely essential to agriculture in Kentucky,” said Barlow who operates a 130-cow dairy farm near Cave City. “It has a major economic impact on Kentucky and on the $5 billion agriculture economy.”
Former Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, a Republican who now heads the Institute of Politics at Harvard, said the days when small farmers relied on extended family, neighbors or school-aged labor to harvest the crops are gone.
“That’s the way it was, but now there truly is no (wage) rate where it is affordable to harvest a crop with non-immigrant labor,” Grayson said.
Yarmuth said many employers can’t find domestic labor at prices they can afford so immigrants don’t pose much of a threat. The exception, he said, is construction and he’d like to see some protections for American construction workers.
Interestingly, Yarmuth represents Kentucky’s Third District in Jefferson County. Very few of his constituents work in agriculture and it was also the district represented in the 1980s by Democrat Romano “Ron” Mazzoli who worked with Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson on the last major immigration reform in 1986.
The Harper Poll questions emphasize border security provisions in the bill and include information about the length of time and difficult path it will take for undocumented immigrants already in the country to achieve citizenship.
For instance, one question calls the bill “bipartisan” and says it will “secure our borders, block employers from hiring undocumented immigrants” and says there is “a long list of requirements . . . over more than a decade” for citizenship. It then asks if respondents support the bill.
Only 20 percent of respondents opposed the bill after hearing that question while 33 percent strongly support the bill and 30 percent somewhat support it.
A total of 61 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to vote for elected officials who vote for the bill and 83 percent said their senator should support the bill.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.