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Age-old tensions surrounding newer and more established immigrants — and who should access government benefits — are resurfacing and offer insight into the mixed polls finding that the American electorate simultaneously approves mass deportations of unauthorized immigrants while also supporting their legalization.

Leading up to the presidential election, a recent CBS News poll found that 62% of voters favored the U.S. government enacting a new national program to deport all undocumented immigrants. This includes 53% of Latinos who feel this way, according to the survey that took place between June 5-7.

Meanwhile, a Pew Research Center report released on June 6 showed that 59% of voters favored letting undocumented immigrants stay in the country illegally. So, what accounts for the difference?

“It’s possible that when voters think about legalizing undocumented immigrants they envision long term residents, but they imagine a different group — recent arrivals — when they think of deportations,” said Michael Kagan, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  “In other words, they aren’t thinking about the same people in each question.”

These polls are making headlines as President Joe Biden announced an order on Tuesday that will allow certain U.S. citizens’ spouses — who have lived in the country at least 10 years — to apply for lawful permanent residency without risking years of separation from their families. This comes just weeks after Biden issued a directive that halts asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border as crossings are up.

“The border crisis defined Biden’s immigration agenda for too long,” said Andrea Flores, with the bipartisan political organization, adding that it was a smart move by Biden to deliver “on his campaign promise to pursue the immigration policies that earn the most public support.” 

At the same time, Former President Donald Trump has pledged to use the National Guard to deport millions of migrants if he’s reelected.

Mass deportations are not suddenly popular, said Alexander Kustov, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Kustov — whose research focuses on public opinion with a focus on managing immigration and ethnic tensions — noted on X that most poll respondents likely interpret the legalization question “to be about folks who have already been here for long, which matters a lot for support.”

An Axios-Ipsos Latino poll released in April found that more than half of U.S. Latino adults worried that any new mass deportations would target all Latinos regardless of legal status. 

Kustov pointed to a U.S.-based study published in 2021 by Cambridge University Press stating that the “future arrival of foreigners seeking to enter” might generate a greater sense of threat due to less certainty “about their size and pace.” In turn, the analysis found “a sense of moral obligation toward [immigrants] living in the country.”

Petra Falcon, who leads the faith-based nonprofit Promise Arizona, said she knows established immigrants who “don’t have a pathway in,” and who may feel a certain way when they see asylum seekers who are getting support and services.

“There’s a lot of people out there that have been in the United States a long time, and they just haven’t been able to figure out a way to get naturalized,” Falcon said, adding that Biden’s new directive will “open a door for a lot of people.”

Falcon, a fourth-generation Arizonan, said hatred against immigrants “[has] always been there.” She thinks of her brown-skinned children who “could pass as immigrants” and who have faced “anti-immigrant” sentiment. Falcon founded Promise Arizona more than 10 years ago when she organized a prayer vigil at the state Capitol to try to prevent then-Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer from signing SB 1070, known as the “show me your papers” law. 

“I do think people think that immigrants need to have a future if they’ve been here a long time and they’ve been serving their community — whether they’re landscapers, whether they’re construction people. They’ve been doing a job that nobody else wants to do,” Falcon said. 

To Kagan, who also serves as the director of the UNLV immigration clinic, the immigration system is so “famously illogical [and] overly complicated” that “Americans often misperceive who can get legal status and work permits under current law.”

Many Americans, Kagan told URL Media, likely presume that all spouses of citizens can already get a green card “and would be confused about what Biden is proposing.”

“One is targeted asylum seekers at the border and the other is about long-standing residents of the U.S. with deep ties to American communities. Those are different groups and American citizens can react differently,” he said.

Regardless, the number of those who favor mass deportation “is absolutely alarming,” a sign that “Americans are becoming more negative on immigration in the Biden era,” he said.

Thinking about the tensions between new and long-term immigrants, Kagan recalls being in college and reading a paper about Jewish immigration to Chicago in the late 19th century “and how German Jews, who had been there longer and were better established, resented the poor Polish Jews they saw coming later after them,” Kagan said. 

“It’s not a new phenomenon, not unique to Latinos,” he said. It’s an old story. It’s an unfortunate story, but I think it’s one that keeps getting repeated,” he said.