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Siena poll measures New Yorkers' attitudes on attempts to address migrant crisis

Three asylum-seekers walking along Wolf Road in Colonie looking for work.
Dave Lucas
Three asylum-seekers walking along Wolf Road in Colonie looking for work.

Most New Yorkers, by a margin of 56% to 36%, support using federal land and buildings as temporary shelter for migrants and making it easier for the migrants to be granted work authorizations, regardless of their immigration status, by a 59% to 33% margin. That's according to a new poll from the Siena College Research Institute, which finds 60% of residents also support a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants in the country. WAMC’s Ian Pickus spoke with the director of the poll, Dr. Don Levy.

Were you surprised by these results at all?

Well, what we wanted to do here, we have been, as you know, polling the issue of the recent migrant influx for quite some time, and many New Yorkers have been telling us that they see it as a serious problem, in fact, over 80%. So we wanted to ask about some of these current issues. So we find that overall, a majority of New Yorkers do support easier access to work authorizations using federal properties as temporary shelters, and a comprehensive immigration reform bill. But we see tremendous partisan divides, overwhelmingly Democrats across the state support each of these at the rate of 75 to 80%. But majorities of Republicans, albeit relatively modest majorities, but over 50% of Republicans say 'No, I do not support these.'

So clearly, the decisions about immigration in general, and the current influx of migrants to the state of New York specifically, have fallen under this partisan divide, which we'll see across so many issues here in New York state. We did want to take a little bit of a deeper dive into some of the beliefs that New Yorkers have about immigrants. We even asked a question, 'Do you agree or disagree that America should continue the words written on the Statue of Liberty, ‘give me your tired your poor?' And there we did find that nearly 70% of all New Yorkers, 80% of Democrats, 59% of Republicans say they continue to agree with those words.

And in fact, when we said, 'How about do you feel as though assimilating immigrants, the U.S. being a melting pot is what has made America great?” And there we see very little partisan divide. 78% of all New Yorkers agree with that statement. 83% of D’s (Democrats) and 77% of Republicans. So we continue at our core to believe in immigration as what has made America great. Unfortunately, when we start to get to some of the specifics, again, we see that partisan divide. So for example, 'Do you think that migrants take more in resources and they return in economic activity or in taxes?' There we see, pretty close, 42% of New Yorkers agree with that statement, 48% disagree. So almost evenly divided. And clearly, again, we see that partisan divide with nearly 70% of Republicans feeling as though migrants take more in resources at present than they offer back to society, but 62% of Democrats disagree with that statement.

This comes on the heels of a previous poll that showed the immigration issue and the migrants really eating into Gov. Hochul’s numbers. How do you think the governor is looking at results like this that show in general, what was it, 84% of respondents agree that migrants are seeking a better life? But as you say, when it gets down to the details of what they're going to do and where they're going to go, things get more complicated.

I think the governor has to take very seriously the approximately one-third of all New Yorkers who have some real concerns about migrants. For example, 35% of New Yorkers feel as though migrants are here just for handouts. 31% feel as though many of them are dangerous, potentially criminal. 38% say that they're the source of illegal drugs. And 36% say that they take jobs away from Americans that have been here for years. These are real concerns of real New Yorkers, and that's what feeds into this concern, this fright, if you will, that the current migrant influx is a threat to New Yorkers, according to this approximately one-third of New Yorkers across the entire state.

Did the poll find out anything about what New Yorkers think should be done? I know Gov. Hochul has kind of stepped up her calls on the Biden administration to step in here, and that's the basis of the question about using federal land. But what do New Yorkers want to see happen?

Well one thing that New Yorkers do want to see is these work authorizations. In fact, 60% of New Yorkers told us that they recognize that business needs new immigrants in order to be successful. That's an opinion that's shared by Democrats, and by Republicans, and by independents. So one thing that New Yorkers do want to say, in recognition that they agree that the vast majority of the immigrants, the migrants that are coming here simply want a better life for they and their family, well let's give them a job. You know, the governor's proposal to ease the work authorizations is certainly something that resonates across the state. And there's this recognition that so many businesses and business people say, 'Absolutely, I need people to be able to put them to work,' and perhaps these migrants can solve that problem.

So where do things go from here? In terms of this issue, it seems pretty trenchant and not one that's going away. We know Republicans in the state legislature are calling for a special session. Seems like one that's going to stick around for a while, don't you think?

Well, absolutely. This is a significant problem that New Yorkers face. There are people who are very much concerned about migrants in general, how to solve this problem in specific. And right now, you can see that the mayor of New York City has said that this could actually destroy the city. So I think it's time that our political friends roll up their sleeves, they take a look at our polls to see that the concerns of a third are very real. But this is against the backdrop of New Yorkers who are generous and welcoming people. But as yet, the solution has not shown itself, and that's what we're looking to see happen.

Historically speaking, do the results of this poll match Democratic and Republican opinions about immigration from previous times that Siena’s looked at it?

DL: We haven't done a lot of these very specific questions about overall attitudes. I think we have seen on many issues that have become partisan-ised, if you will, that you get this split between Democrats and Republicans. It's really fascinating, though, that when you ask these values questions, we're no longer Democrats and Republicans, we're New Yorkers who say, directly in the constitution of immigration, the partisan divide comes in about what about these people and the effect that they're having? What about whether or not the Biden administration has sufficiently helped out? That's where the partisan divide comes in. And I think that our political friends need to recognize that the approximately one-third of New Yorkers who are profoundly concerned about migrants and think that they might be the source of drugs, they might be criminal. They're not necessarily, you know, a bad people, they're not racist people, they're New Yorkers who have very legitimate concerns that have to be addressed by our political leadership.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.