Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Most Say Immigration Policy Needs Big Changes

But Little Agreement on Specific Approaches


Americans overwhelmingly say the nation’s immigration policy is in need of sweeping changes. Overall, 75% say immigration policy needs at least major changes, with 35% saying it

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needs to be “completely rebuilt”—among the highest of seven policy areas tested.

Yet the broad public agreement that immigration policy should be revamped is not matched by consensus on how to deal with illegal and legal immigration.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted May 1-5 among 1,504 adults, finds that 73% say there should be a way for illegal immigrants already in the United States who meet certain requirements to stay here. But fewer than half (44%) favor allowing those here illegally to apply for U.S. citizenship, while 25% think permanent legal status is more appropriate.

These views are virtually unchanged from March, suggesting that last month’s bombings at the Boston Marathon have had little effect on overall public opinion on this issue. In a survey released last week, 58% said that the Boston attack and the immigration debate are mostly separate issues, while 36% said the attack should be an important part of the debate on the immigration bill.

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When it comes to legal immigration, relatively few (31%) see current levels as satisfactory, but there is no consensus as to whether the level of legal immigration should be decreased (36%) or increased (25%)

Meanwhile, securing U.S. borders looms over the debate: 53% of Americans say there is a lot more that the government can be doing to reduce illegal immigration at U.S. borders. Just 13% believe there is little or nothing more the government can do to tighten border security.

Majorities across all demographic and political groups think there is more the government can do to secure the borders, but there are ideological differences over how much: 68% of conservative Republicans say the government can do a lot more on border security, compared with just 37% of liberal Democrats.

While most Americans see immigration policy in need of major changes, last week’s survey found that the public has yet to fully engage with the congressional debate over immigration legislation. About one-in-five (19%) are following the immigration debate very closely. Only about half (46%) know that the immigration bill before Congress would allow people currently in the United States illegally to stay here while applying for citizenship; even fewer (37%) know the bill was introduced by a bipartisan group of senators. And nearly four-in-ten (38%) have no opinion about the immigration legislation before Congress, while 33% favor it and 28% are opposed.

Policies in Several Areas Seen as in Need of Major Changes

Three-quarters of Americans (75%) say that immigration policy either needs to be completely rebuilt or needs major changes. Just 21% say immigration policy works pretty well and

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needs only minor changes.

Nearly as many (72%) say the nation’s tax system is in need of a complete overhaul or major changes. Majorities also say that the education system (66%), the health care system (64%), the Medicare system (58%) and the Social Security system (54%) should be completely rebuilt or undergo major changes. Fewer (44%) say the Homeland Security system needs a major overhaul.

While there are partisan differences in views of specific policies toward immigration, taxes and other issues, Republicans and Democrats are more in sync when it comes to the need for changes to major polices and national systems. Nearly eight-in-ten Republicans (79%) say that immigration policy should be completely rebuilt or undergo major changes; 76% of independents and 72% of Democrats agree.

Large Majority Say Those in U.S. Illegally Should Be Allowed to Stay

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Overall patterns in opinions about how to deal with those in the United States illegally have changed little since late March. (For a full demographic breakdown, see “Most Say Illegal Immigrants Should be Allowed to Stay, But Citizenship Is More Divisive,” March 28, 2013.)

There are partisan and ideological differences in these opinions: While 63% of conservative Republicans favor providing legal status for those in the United States illegally if they meet certain requirements, just 37% say they should be allowed to apply for citizenship. Nearly a quarter of conservative Republicans (23%) say people in the U.S. illegally should be allowed to apply for permanent residency, but not citizenship.

More than eight-in-ten liberal Democrats (85%) favor letting those in the U.S. illegally stay legally. By nearly three-to-one (62% to 22%), liberal Democrats say that those here illegally should be allowed to seek citizenship rather than permanent residency.

Most Don’t Think Legal Status Would “Reward” Those Here Illegally

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A majority of Americans (56%) do not feel that giving people in the United States illegally a way to gain legal status would be like rewarding them for doing something wrong. About four-in-ten (37%) say giving them a way to obtain legal status would be tacitly rewarding wrongdoing.

Most Democrats (64%) and independents (58%) say that giving those in the U.S. illegally a way to gain legal status would not amount to a reward for bad behavior. Republicans are divided: 49% say it would be like rewarding them for wrongdoing, while 44% disagree.

As might be expected, those who favor finding a way for those in the U.S. illegally to stay in the country legally do not view a path to legal status as a reward for wrongdoing (by 67% to 27%). By nearly an identical margin (69% to 26%), those who oppose legal status for those here illegally do see it as a tacit reward for wrongdoing.

Half Think the Government Can Do a Lot More to Secure Borders

About half of Americans (53%) say the government can do a lot more to reduce illegal immigration at U.S. borders, while 30% say there is

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somewhat more the government can do. Just 13% say there is little or nothing more the government can do to reduce illegal immigration at the borders.

Majorities or pluralities across most groups say the government could doing a lot more to tighten border security. Republicans (64%) are more likely to express this view than are independents (53%) or Democrats (45%).

In February, 47% said the priority for dealing with illegal immigration should be to improve border security and strengthen law enforcement, as well as to create a path to citizenship. Fewer said the priority should be just border security and stricter law enforcement or just a path to citizenship (25% each).

Views of Legal Immigration

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When asked about the optimal level of legal immigration to the United States, 36% say it should be decreased, 31% say it should be kept at its current level, and 25% say it should be increased.

These views are modestly changed from March 2006, before the last major congressional debate on immigration. At that time, 40% said legal immigration should be decreased, 37% said it should be kept at its current level and 17% favored increasing legal immigration.

Hispanics are divided in views of legal immigration: Approximately equal percentages say it should be decreased (32%), kept at its present level (29%) and increased (28%). A plurality of whites (39%) favor decreasing the level of legal immigration, while just 22% say it should be increased and 32% say it should be kept at its current level.

Democrats are split over the appropriate level of legal immigration. Meanwhile, more Republicans favor cutting back on legal immigration than increasing it (41% to 20%), while 33% favor maintaining the status quo.

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