Debate over immigration policy in the past few weeks has focused on the controversial new Arizona immigration law requiring police to verify the legal status of someone they have stopped or detained if they suspect that the person is in the country illegally. A majority of the public (64%), including half of Democrats, approves of the new Arizona law.
At the same time, there continues to be strong majority support for providing a way for illegal immigrants already in the country to become citizens. About two-thirds (68%) say they favor providing illegal immigrants a way to gain citizenship if they pass background checks, pay fines and have jobs.
However, as an illustration of how difficult it may be to gain majority support for a plan that includes both stronger enforcement and the so-called path to citizenship, just 38% in the current poll favor both path to citizenship and the new Arizona law. A quarter of the public (25%) approves of the Arizona law but opposes providing a way for undocumented immigrants to become citizens. A similar percentage (28%) favors the latter but disapproves of the Arizona law. The rest (9%) either opposes both or expresses no opinion about one or both questions.
Underlying the public’s opinions about immigration policy are deeply divided views of immigrants and immigration itself. Half (50%) say immigrants are a burden on our country because of they take our jobs, housing and health care, an increase of 10 percentage points in this view since November 2009. And 44% say that immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values. Complicating the politics of reform is the fact that divisions on the impact of immigration and on questions about policy are found not just between Republicans and Democrats but within each of the parties as well. In both parties, anti-immigrant sentiment is stronger among those with no college experience than among those with college experience. These divisions are particularly large among white Democrats.
Most Favor Path to Citizenship
The number of Americans who favor providing illegal immigrants with a way to obtain citizenship has increased in recent years. Currently, 68% favor providing a way for illegal immigrants to gain legal citizenship if they pass background checks, pay fines and have a job. that is up from 63% in April 2009 and 58% in December 2007.
Compared with 2007, support has grown among Democrats and independents, but not among Republicans. Still, majorities in both parties, as well as among independents, support giving illegal immigrants a chance to obtain citizenship.
Hispanics and young people are especially likely to support this idea. More than eight-in-ten Hispanics (83%) do so, compared with 69% among non-Hispanic blacks and 65% among non-Hispanic whites. Among whites, people who have attended college are more supportive than those with no college experience (by 74% to 55%).
More than three-quarters of those younger than 30 (76%) favor the idea, as do 70% of those 30 to 49. That compares with 65% of those 50 to 64 and 57% of those 65 and older.
While a sizeable majority supports a citizenship option for undocumented immigrants, a comparably large majority (64%) approves of a key enforcement provision of the state of Arizona’s new immigration law; 32% disapprove of it. The law requires police to attempt to verify the legal status of individuals they have stopped, detained or arrested if they suspect that the individual is in the U.S. illegally.
Partisan differences on this issue are considerably larger than they are on the path to citizenship question. Republicans are nearly unanimous in their support for the Arizona law, with 84% saying they approve of the legislation (and 90% among conservative Republicans). In contrast, Democrats are nearly evenly divided, with 50% approving and 46% disapproving.
Democrats are divided along class lines over the Arizona law. Among white Democrats and independents who lean Democratic, 67% of those with no college experience favor the law, compared with just 37% of those with college experience.
Immigrants’ Impact on Jobs
By a margin of about two-to-one, more respondents said that immigrants are doing work that Americans don’t want to do (59%) rather than taking jobs away from American citizens (30%). This reflects a slight uptick since 2006 in the perception that immigrants mostly displace American workers. In March 2006, 24% said immigrants take jobs Americans want to do, while 65% said they mostly take unwanted jobs.
More than a third (36%) of those with no more than a high school education say immigrants take away jobs from American citizens. That compares with just 19% of college graduates.
Change the Constitution?
Most Americans continue to favor preserving the constitutional provision that makes all children born in the United States citizens, regardless of their parents’ immigration status. A majority (56%) favors leaving the Constitution as it is, while 41% favor changing the Constitution to prevent children from automatically being citizens at birth if their parents are not in the country legally.
Hispanics are especially opposed to such a change, with 69% saying they would not favor changing the Constitution. Republicans are nearly divided, with a slight majority of 51% favoring amending the Constitution and 46% opposing this. Among Democrats, 62% oppose changing the Constitution, while 34% favor it. Opinion among independents is similar to that among Democrats (39% support, 59% oppose).
Opinion on this question is virtually unchanged from four years ago, when 42% favored a constitutional change and 54% opposed it. More than eight-in-ten (85%) say they are aware of the constitutional provision granting citizenship to all children born in the United States, which is up slightly from 2006 (80%).
Immigrants’ Impact on the Country
The public is divided in its assessment of how immigrants affect the economy and the culture of the nation. Half (50%) agree with the statement that “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.” Just 39% agree with the opposite statement that “immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.”
The proportion seeing a negative economic impact of immigrants is 10 percentage points higher now than it was late last year. These negative perceptions have fluctuated over time; in 2006, 52% said immigrants are a burden. But when the question was first asked in 1994, fully 63% said this.
Asked about the cultural impact of immigrants, the public splits evenly between those seeing a positive impact and those seeing a negative one: 44% agreed that “the growing number of newcomers from other countries threaten traditional American customs and values,” and an equal percentage agrees that “the growing number of newcomers from other countries strengthens American society.”
As with many other issues in U.S. politics, opinions on immigration have become more polarized along partisan lines over the past few years. In 2004 there was only a one-point difference between Democrats and Republicans in the percentage saying that immigrants are a burden to the country (Republicans 44%, Democrats 43%). In the current poll, 64% of Republicans say this, compared with 41% of Democrats.
Similarly, in 2004 45% of Republicans said that immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values, and 39% of Democrats agreed. Currently, 58% of Republicans agree with this statement, but only 33% of Democrats do so.
Independents as a group tend to fall between Republicans and Democrats on both questions. Independents who lean Republican nearly mirror Republicans’ views on these questions; similarly, independents who lean Democratic are similar to Democrats in the percentages giving pro- or anti-immigrant answers.