More Americans willing to let illegal immigrants stay, poll finds

But there's less clarity on what the public wants legal status to look like. Fewer than half, for instance, approve of a 'pathway to citizenship' for illegal immigrants who meet criteria, says the Pew poll.  

Nam Y. Huh/AP
Immigrant rights protesters hold signs outside of Kluczynski Federal Building in downtown Chicago, last week. More Americans say there should be a way for illegal immigrants to remain in the US legally, if they meet certain requirements, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center.

As Congress has warmed up to the idea of immigration reform, one important reason may be that the general public has been shifting in the same direction.

Majorities across all demographic and political groups say there should be a way for illegal immigrants to remain in the US legally, if they meet certain requirements, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center.

And, judging by other polls, the public's view of immigrants and immigration has become more favorable over the past couple of years.

That’s significant context for members of Congress who are considering major immigration reform legislation, an idea backed by President Obama. Legislation that would tighten border security, while expanding opportunities for legal immigrant status, has gained political steam in part from a Republican Party aiming to revive its appeal among minority voters.

About 11 million immigrants are estimated to be in the United States illegally, roughly 1 immigrant in 4.

The question of what form legalization should take remains controversial, with many Americans reluctant to support a “pathway to citizenship.”

In the Pew poll, released Thursday, no more than about half in any demographic group – and 43 percent overall -- supported such a pathway, even as most respondents favored some form of legal residency.

But that result conflicts with some other recent polls that have found stronger support for the “pathway” idea.

The pattern seems to be that when a survey gives several options – the pathway, some other form of legal status, and no legal status – only a minority of respondents opt for the path to citizenship. But when they’re asked to simply give a thumbs up or down on the pathway, the idea has majority support.

That majority support was visible earlier this year in polls by CBS News, Fox News, and ABC News/Washington Post. In CBS and Quinnipiac University polling, a majority supported the pathway even when a middle option (such as “remain, not apply for citizenship”) was offered.

Much may depend on specific word choices used in the polls. The Quinnipiac and CBS polls offered the idea of people “eventually” applying for citizenship.

The Fox News poll also used “eventually,” and added “as long as they meet certain requirements like paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check.” When framed that way, fully 72 percent of respondents, including 63 percent of Republicans, supported the idea.

All this does not necessarily represent a dramatic change in the public outlook. For example, a 2010 CBS News/New York Times poll showed results comparable to this week’s Pew survey, with 43 percent embracing a path to citizenship.

But a general shift appears to have occurred.

In Gallup surveys, 55 percent of Americans in 2012 said it’s more important to develop a plan to deal with immigrants already in the US than to halt the flow of illegal immigration. From 2006 through 2011 “halting the flow” had majority support.

And, separately, Americans have become more welcoming toward legal immigration, Gallup finds. As of 2012, it remained true that more people favored reducing the level of immigration than increasing it. But the “decrease immigration” view outmatched the “increase” view by the smallest amount (14 percentage points) that’s been seen in Gallup surveys going back to 1986.

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