As the U.S. Supreme Court wrestles with the Obama administration's challenge of Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigration, the overall issue of immigration remains misunderstood by both political parties in Washington.
Many Washington Republicans confuse voter opposition to illegal immigration with opposition to all immigration. Their remarks often contain an ugly tone toward those who want to come to America.
Many Washington Democrats confuse public respect for hardworking immigrants with a belief that borders and immigration laws don't matter. Their remarks often contain an ugly tone toward those who believe the nation's immigration laws should be enforced.
On the issues before the court, most voters tend to side with the state of Arizona rather than the federal government. Fifty-nine percent of voters nationwide, for example, agree with one of the law's most controversial provisions, that police officers should routinely check the immigration status of those they pull over for other violations. Most voters would like to have a law like Arizona's in their own state.
But that says more about voter respect for the law than it does about the immigration issue. Voters figure if there's a law on the books, the government should enforce it.
That's why, among voters who are angry about the immigration issue, 83 percent are angry at the federal government rather than the illegal immigrants themselves. It's also why two-thirds of voters think those who knowingly hire illegal immigrants are a bigger problem than the people they employ. Simply put, most Americans are angry at those who would entice others to break the law. They're not angry at people who are willing to work hard to provide for their families.
It's a little bit like the public desire to go after drug pushers rather than occasional users of illegal drugs.
Still, there's another reason for the disconnect between official Washington and the American people on immigration.
In Washington, the entire focus of the immigration debate is on how to deal with those already living here illegally. For voters, this is a secondary concern. The bigger concern is how to secure the border so future immigrants enter the county according to the rules. Routinely, in surveys for years, 60 percent or more of voters say securing the borders is a higher priority than legalizing the status of the illegal immigrants who are here now.
Once voters are convinced that illegal immigration is a thing of the past, it will be easier to address the status of those in the country already.
But voters don't believe the federal government has any interest in securing the border. In fact, most believe the policies of the federal government are designed to encourage illegal immigration. This offends voters who want to respect the rule of law. If immigration laws -- or any laws -- are routinely ignored, then the government loses credibility.
If the laws are enforced, 61 percent of voters favor a welcoming policy that lets anybody come to America except national security threats, criminals and those who would live off the U.S. welfare system. All who would like to work hard and pursue the American Dream are welcome.
The bottom line is that voters remember what many in Washington often forget: America is a nation of immigrants -- and of laws. The American people want both traditions to be honored.