June 8, 2015

Broad Public Support for Legal Status for Undocumented Immigrants

With immigration shaping up to be a major issue in both the final years of the Obama administration and the 2016 presidential campaign, most Americans (72%) continue to say undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay in the country legally, if certain requirements are met, according to a new national surveyby Pew Research Center.

These views have fluctuated only modestly over the past two years. A majority of those who favor granting legal status for people in the U.S. illegally – 42% of the public overall – say they should be able to apply for U.S. citizenship. About a quarter (26%) say they should only be able to apply for permanent residency.

The survey, conducted May 12-18 among 2,002 adults, finds less agreement when it comes to other opinions about immigrants and immigration. About half (51%) say immigrants today strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, while 41% say immigrants are a burden because they take jobs, housing and healthcare.

A majority of Republicans (56%) support a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. At the same time, far more Republicans say immigrants are a burden on the country (63%) than say they strengthen the country (27%). Among Democrats and independents – majorities of whom also support a path to legal status for people in the U.S. illegally – most say immigrants strengthen the country (62% of Democrats, 57% of independents).

Overall, most Americans reject the idea that giving those who came to the U.S. illegally a path to legal status is in essence “rewarding” them for bad behavior. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say they do not think of a path to legal status in these terms, while 36% say it is “like rewarding them for doing something wrong.”

While most Republicans support allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally if they meet certain requirements, a majority (58%) views a path to legal status as a reward for doing something wrong. By contrast, just 23% of Democrats and 33% of independents say the same.

Among the survey’s key findings:

Public split on the best approach to handling legal immigration to the United States. Slightly more say legal immigration into the country should be decreased (31%) than increased (24%), while a 39% plurality says legal immigration should be kept at its present level. Among Republicans, 42% think legal immigration into the U.S. should be decreased, compared with 27% of Democrats and 28% of independents.

Most think border security can be improved. About half (51%) say “a lot” can be done to reduce illegal immigration at U.S. borders, while another 29% say somewhat more can be done. Relatively few (17%) say not much or nothing can be done to improve border security.

Republicans critical of party on illegal immigration. Just 34% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say the GOP is doing a good job in representing their views on illegal immigration, while 59% say it is not doing a good job. Democrats give their party more positive evaluations. About half (51%) of Democrats and Democratic leaners say the party is doing a good job in representing their views on illegal immigration, while 43% disagree.

37% approve of Obama’s handling of immigration. Obama gets some of his lowest issue approval ratings for his handling of the nation’s immigration policy. About four-in-ten (37%) approve of the way he is handling this policy, while 56% disapprove. Whites disapprove of Obama’s performance on this issue by more than two-to-one (65% to 29%), while Hispanics are divided (48% disapprove, 44% approve) and 66% of blacks of approve.

The full report is for immediate release and available at:

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