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Public Opinion, Values and Demographic Trends Align in Support of Immigration Reform

A recently released report by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution offers the latest evidence of broad public receptivity to comprehensive immigration reform.
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A recently released report by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution offers the latest evidence of broad public receptivity to comprehensive immigration reform. The report, titled "Citizenship, Values and Cultural Concerns: What Americans Want from Immigration Reform," summarizes the results of an extensive survey of 4,465 U.S. adults, conducted between January 28 and February 24, 2013. By wide margins, respondents expressed support for legalization of the unauthorized, changes in the underlying legal immigration rules, and enforcement of the law. The survey found low levels of support for deportation and self-deportation policies as "the best way" to address the nation's 11 million unauthorized residents.

On the issue of legalization, 77 percent of respondents supported allowing the unauthorized to become either U.S. citizens (63 percent) or permanent legal residents (14 percent). Nearly two-thirds of Republicans favored either a path to citizenship (53 percent) or permanent legal residence (13 percent). Sixty-eight percent of respondents (up from 62 percent in 2011) believed that a combination of enforcement and a path to citizenship was the best way to solve the illegal immigration problem, versus 29 percent who supported securing U.S. borders and arresting and deporting all unauthorized immigrants. Sixty-one percent favored or strongly favored allowing unauthorized persons brought to the United States as children, who join the military or attend college, to gain legal status.

The survey also revealed strong support for reform of the legal immigration system and for family-based immigration, a mainstay of the current system. Seventy-five percent supported allowing graduates of U.S. universities with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees to work legally in the United States; 72 percent favored an expanded temporary "guest" worker program; and large majorities favored giving preference in the immigration system to persons with a spouse (63 percent) or with children or parents (60 percent) living legally in the United States.

The survey also found robust support for strengthening traditional immigration enforcement programs: 81 percent expressed support for a database that would allow employers to verify the immigration status of new hires and 68 percent favored securing the border combined with an earned path to citizenship. Hispanics (80 percent) and Asians (76 percent) overwhelming supported this latter position. In contrast, 55 percent mostly or completely disagreed with making a "serious effort" to deport all unauthorized immigrants. Even higher percentages -- 64 percent in total, including 72 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of Independents, and 53 percent of Republicans -- mostly or completely disagreed that the "best way" to solve illegal immigration was to force the unauthorized to self-deport by making living conditions extremely difficult for them. Perhaps as a result of these positions, respondents trusted the Democratic Party over the Republican Party to handle the issue of illegal migration (43 to 30 percent) and to address the immigration issue overall (39 to 29 percent).

One of the survey's most striking findings was the degree to which respondents misperceived recent immigration enforcement trends. Only 28 percent believed that deportations had increased over last five or six years. Seventy percent of Republicans and 57 percent of Democrats thought that deportations had either decreased or stayed about the same during this period. In fact, 1.5 million non-citizens have been removed over the last four years, far more than in any period in U.S. history. The report found a high correlation between views on legalization and perceptions of deportation levels. Eighty five percent of those who recognized that deportations had increased supported either a path to citizenship (70 percent) or permanent legal status (15 percent). Of those who believed that deportations had decreased, 49 percent supported a path to citizenship and 13 percent favored permanent legal residence.

The report revealed broad support for "values" that have traditionally been used to argue in favor of diverse elements of comprehensive reform. Thus, 84 percent identified keeping families together as an appropriate moral guide for immigration reform, while 77 percent identified enforcing the rule of law as extremely or very important.

The report highlighted the growing diversity of the United States and sharp divergences in opinion between younger and older Americans. Nearly 50 percent of survey respondents between ages 18 and 29 self-identified as White, 23 percent as Hispanic, 12 percent black, 5 percent Asian, and 8 percent another race or mixed race. By contrast, 82 percent of seniors self-identified as white. Among other disparities in outlook, 68 percent of younger adults said that immigrants strengthened U.S. society, compared to 44 percent of seniors.

While the likelihood and shape of legislative reform remains unclear, the survey helps to explain the renewed commitment by policymakers to find common ground on immigration. Public support, values, and demographic trends are all aligning in favor of key elements of comprehensive immigration reform.

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