"We've come to a basic agreement," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Sunday, talking about the Gang of Eight's progress crafting a comprehensive immigration reform bill. "First, people will be legalized ... then we will make sure the border is secure ... and after that happens, there's a path to citizenship."
Much of the public discussion about immigration reform has focused on the requirement that the border be proved secure before the creation of a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants currently in the country illegally. But Schumer laid out the progression correctly. The still unfinished Gang of Eight plan would first legalize those 11 million (provided they have not committed any serious crimes), and after that would come efforts to improve and certify border security, and then, finally, the path to citizenship.
That first step, immediate legalization, could prove a stumbling block for reformers once it becomes better known. In general, a majority of the public believes that enhanced border security must precede everything else when it comes to immigration reform.
In late March, pollster Scott Rasmussen shed light on those attitudes with a few questions that rarely turn up in the public conversation about reform. "A comprehensive immigration reform plan has been proposed that would secure the border and prevent future illegal immigration," began the first Rasmussen question. "As part of the plan, those who entered the country illegally but have otherwise obeyed the law, would be given legal status to stay in the United States. If you knew that the border would really be secured to prevent future illegal immigration, would you favor or oppose this plan?"
Support for such a plan was strong: 59 percent approval, versus 26 percent disapproval. Republicans supported the idea 50 percent to 37 percent, Democrats supported it 63 percent to 20 percent, and independents supported it 62 percent to 22 percent.
Next, Rasmussen asked another question, but only to those who supported the plan: "Should those who are now in this country illegally be granted legal status right away or should that come only after the border is secured?"
The results were decisive. Sixty-four percent said legal status should only come after the border is secured, versus 26 percent who disagreed. Republicans supported security-first by 79 percent to 17 percent, Democrats supported it by 51 percent to 36 percent, and independents supported it by 67 percent to 22 percent.
Then Rasmussen asked a final question of everyone: "If a law was passed to secure the border, how likely is it that the federal government would actually secure the border and prevent illegal immigration?"
The answers to that question should give pause to all reformers. Just 9 percent said it was very likely that the government would secure the border, while another 29 percent said it was somewhat likely. That's a total of 38 percent who believe the government will actually secure the border.
On the other hand, 36 percent said it was not very likely that the government would secure the border, while another 17 percent said it was not at all likely -- for a total of 53 percent who don't believe the government will secure the border. (Ten percent said they weren't sure.)
Republicans were the most skeptical, with disbelievers outnumbering believers 63 percent to 28 percent. Independents were just as skeptical, at 65 percent to 26 percent. Only Democrats expressed faith that the border might be secured, by a 54 percent to 34 percent margin.
The bottom line: Most Americans would support an immigration reform plan, but only if border security comes first. And by "first" they mean before the legalization of currently illegal immigrants and before the creation of a path to citizenship. Would they be more flexible if they truly believed the federal government's promise to secure the border? Perhaps -- but they don't believe.
And why should they? Previous pledges to secure the border have ended in half-hearted enforcement. Yes, there is more border security today than there was a decade ago. But there has always been, it seems, a resistance in the federal bureaucracy to relatively simple actions, like finishing a sufficiently secure border fence, that would contribute greatly to enhanced enforcement.
On top of that, of course, is the fact that the American people don't trust Congress to do much of anything.
So it is in that atmosphere that the Gang of Eight prepares to unveil its comprehensive reform plan. The biggest obstacle won't be a guest worker program or some other detail. It will be the public's lack of trust.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.