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Path to citizenship for immigrants draws support from California’s voters

Wu_Suzanneby Suzanne Wu

In a dramatic shift from just a few years ago, Californians across age, race and political affiliation favor an immigration policy that includes a path to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants as well as enhanced border security and workplace enforcement, according to results of the largest statewide survey of registered voters released on March 24.

Overall, 72 percent of voters in the latest USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times Poll favored comprehensive changes to the immigration system, including a path to citizenship, and 21 percent opposed the plan. Nearly three out of four voters also favored a guest-worker program.

“Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress should listen to how Californians approach these issues,” said Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/LA Times Poll and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “Many congressional Republicans are opposed to a path to citizenship. Many congressional Democrats are leery of enhanced border security and a guest-worker program. But California voters understand that each of these elements is essential to a comprehensive immigration reform package.”

The results of the poll show a significant shift in voter sentiment toward illegal immigrants in just a few years. In November 2010, 41 percent of Republican voters and 69 percent of Democratic voters supported the possibility of allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the country permanently if they fulfilled “certain obligations such as paying a fine,” according to polling from USC and the Los Angeles Times. Twenty-six percent of Democratic voters and 51 percent of Republican voters opposed it.

The percentage of California Republicans supporting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants has since grown by nearly 35 percentage points, when voters were asked a similar question with additional conditions.

In the latest USC Dornsife/LA Times Poll, 76 percent of Republican voters said they supported allowing illegal immigrants with no serious criminal records to “go to the back of the line and work toward citizenship” if they learn English, and pay taxes and a penalty.

This path to citizenship was also supported by 88 percent of Democratic voters and 83 percent of voters with “no party preference.” Twenty-two percent of Republican voters, 11 percent of Democratic voters and 16 percent of voters with no party preference opposed a path to citizenship.

In addition, 71 percent of Republican voters supported a comprehensive immigration reform plan that included both enhanced border security and stricter penalties for companies that employ illegal immigrants, as well as a path to citizenship; 23 percent of Republican voters opposed it. Among voters with no party preference, 76 percent supported and 14 percent opposed comprehensive changes to immigration policy. Among Democratic voters, 70 percent favored the plan and 22 percent opposed it.

This broad support for national immigration reform cannot be solely attributed to changing voter demographics in California, according to political analysts. Support for comprehensive changes to immigration policy are as strong among white voters and older voters as among minority voters and younger voters, poll results found.

“What you’re seeing here is not being driven by generational change,” said Drew Lieberman, vice president of Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which conducted the USC Dornsife/LA Times Poll with Republican polling firm American Viewpoint. “This is not just a reflection of Latinos in the state being younger, but actual changes in the ways people are viewing these issues.”

Indeed, Latino voters and white voters favored the plan in equal measure when told about elements of the proposed immigration legislation, including a path to citizenship. Seventy-one percent of each group supported the immigration plan, and 21 percent opposed it. In November 2010, when asked a similar question, Latino voters supported a path to citizenship by a margin of 77-to-19, while white voters supported it by a smaller 51-42 margin.

Both younger and older voters also supported the immigration plan. Seventy-one percent of voters aged 18 to 49 supported the plan, along with 73 percent of voters over 50. Twenty-two percent of younger voters and 19 percent of older voters opposed the immigration plan. In November 2010, when asked a similar question, 60 percent of younger voters favored a path to citizenship, and 34 opposed it; among older voters, 52 percent favored a path to citizenship and 41 percent opposed it, according to polling from USC and the Times.

Specific mention of President Barack Obama’s name, however, divided voter support for the proposed immigration policy in the latest poll. Using a split sample, Obama’s affiliation with the plan increased voter support among Latino voters from 71 percent supporting the plan on its own to 79 percent supporting the plan when the president’s name was attached to it.

In contrast, when Republican voters were asked about the immigration plan, noting Obama’s support for the legislation, the percentage in favor took a double-digit drop, from 71 percent to 58 percent; the percentage of Republican voters who opposed the plan rose from 23 percent to 31 percent.

“You can see why the White House is keeping an arm’s length from the immigration debate going on in Congress,” Schnur said. “Though it helps with some of the President’s strongest supporters, it could lead to enhanced opposition from Republicans. That’s not something they need if they want to get that bill through this year.”

When presented with three options about how to deal with illegal immigrants currently in the United States, 65 percent of voters said illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country and eventually apply for citizenship. Another 10 percent of voters said illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay and work, but should not be allowed to apply for citizenship. Nineteen percent said illegal immigrants should be required to leave the United States.

Los Amigos,’ even for white voters

Voter sentiment about whether illegal immigrants contribute the state economy has also flipped in the last three years.

In sharp contrast to polling done by USC and the Times in 2010, a majority of voters in the state — 53 percent — now said illegal immigrants have had a mostly positive effect on the economy, and 36 percent said illegal immigrants have had a mostly negative effect.

In March 2010, the last time this question was asked, 40 percent of voters said illegal immigrants had a mostly positive effect on the state’s economy and 48 percent said they had a negative effect.

More than one in five Californians in the latest poll said they know or work with someone who is an undocumented immigrant, and, of those who know an illegal immigrant, 32 percent characterize the person as a “friend” and 13 percent characterize the person as a family member.

“Immigration reform is really about ‘los amigos’ and ‘la familia,’ for both whites and Latinos,” said David Kanevsky, research director at American Viewpoint. “There is a consensus that the current immigration system is broken, which is why voters are willing to make major reforms and not just tinker around the edges. As a result, you’re now seeing voters across the spectrum, including Republicans in California, support an earned path to citizenship for undocumented workers as part of a broader package to fix our immigration system.”

Support for border security and guest-worker programs

Just 4 percent of voters said immigration policy in the United States should stay as it is, and more than two-thirds (67 percent) said the system needs either major changes or a “complete overhaul.” Another 24 percent said the system is working well but needs some slight changes.

As for the form these changes should take, California voters seem to support an all-of-the-above approach, with large majorities favoring every specific element of the proposed immigration plan when asked about each part separately.

A guest-worker program allowing immigrants to do low-skilled jobs that Americans are unable or unwilling to do is supported by 73 percent of voters and opposed by 24 percent. In November 2010, a similar proposal for a temporary worker program that did not grant legal citizenship was supported by 70 percent of California voters and opposed by 25 percent, according to polling from USC and the Times.

In the latest USC Dornsife/LA Times Poll, 76 percent of voters surveyed supported increasing border patrols and infrastructure to focus on the most serious security threats, and 20 percent opposed the policy.

Voters also supported requiring employers to verify the legal status of their employees and fining employers who do not comply: 74 percent supported this measure, and 21 percent opposed it. Seventy-eight percent of voters supported making it easier for those who have advanced science degrees to legally immigrate to the United States by increasing the number of visas, and 17 percent opposed it.

As for a path to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants, 83 percent of voters support allowing illegal immigrants with no criminal records to go to the back of the immigration line and work towards citizenship over time if they learn English and pay taxes and a penalty. Fifteen percent opposed allowing a path to citizenship.

Overall, 58 percent of California voters agreed with the statement that the immigration plan as a whole provides a “common-sense solution to our broken immigration system” and makes the “whole system more accountable and fair.” Thirty-one percent agreed with a competing statement, that the plan “is amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants” and that we should first “secure our borders and take care of those who have played by the rules.”

The USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll was conducted on March 11-17, by Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and Republican polling firm American Viewpoint. The full sample of 1,501 registered voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

Additional poll results and methodology are available dornsife.usc.edu/poll

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