Poll results can vary widely, depending on how the questions are worded. Nowhere is this truer than when the subject is immigration. When the pollster wants to find support for amnesty, for example, he'll use soft language like "path to citizenship" and omit any reference to "attrition through enforcement" that should be offered as an alternative to mass amnesty or mass deportations. When journalists report the poll's findings, the reader would benefit from the exact wording of the question. Unfortunately, that information is often left out of the final story.
For instance, Yahoo news reports that "53 percent of Texans would like to see the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution amended to remove automatic citizenship to children born of illegal aliens in the United States," according to a University of Texas and Texas Tribune poll. The finding itself raises some red flags. The automatic citizenship for illegal aliens' children is granted by federal statute, and the primary legislation to end the practice is "The Birthright Citizenship Act," which would amend federal law, not the Constitution. Did the poll offer a change to federal law as an option?
The Yahoo article does not report or link to the language used in the poll. Nor does the Houston Chronicle blog that Yahoo based its article on. The Chronicle blog does link to the homepage of the Texas Tribune, where you can search for the original article, which provides excellent reference materials regarding the poll, including the questions asked. The UT and Texas Tribune poll asks the question on birthright citizenship like this:
As you may know, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution says that all children born in the United States are automatically U.S. citizens regardless of their parents' legal status. Would you favor or oppose changing the Constitution to REPEAL this part of the 14th Amendment?
The question itself is bogus. The 14th Amendment doesn't say anything of the sort. The 14th Amendment reads, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside." There is a legitimate debate - which can only be settled by the Supreme Court of the United States - about what "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" means. Whoever wrote the question took it upon him or herself to assume the debate's outcome before it was ever held and, in the process, misled his subject.
Despite the question's inaccuracies, fifty-three percent of the respondents indicated they would support measures beyond those laid out in The Birthright Citizenship Act. That alone would have been an interesting finding, particularly if the pollster polled attitudes about a change-the-law approach versus a change-the Constitution approach. Unfortunately, since the original question is based on erroneous information, the rest of the poll's findings cannot be taken seriously.
In polling, words matter. A careful reader should always look for the source material in stories that rely on polling, especially if the exact wording isn't provided. Trust but verify.
JEREMY BECK is Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA
Updated: Fri, Mar 4th 2011 @ 3:11pm EST