May 25, 2007
Immigration Bill Provisions Gain Wide Support in Poll
By JULIA PRESTON and MARJORIE CONNELLY
As opponents from the right and left challenge an immigration bill
before Congress, there is broad support among Americans Democrats,
Republicans and independents alike for the major provisions in the
legislation, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Taking a pragmatic view on a divisive issue, a large majority of
Americans want to change the immigration laws to allow illegal
immigrants to gain legal status and to create a new guest worker
program to meet future labor demands, the poll found.
At the same time, Americans have mixed feelings about whether the
recent wave of immigration has been beneficial to the country, the
survey found, and they are sharply divided over how open the United
States should be to future immigrants.
Half of Americans say they are ready to transform the process for
selecting new immigrants as proposed in the bill, giving priority to
job skills and education levels over family ties to the United States,
which have been the foundation of the immigration system for four decades.
Point by point, large majorities expressed support for measures in the
legislation that has been under debate since Monday in the Senate.
The nationwide telephone poll did not ask respondents about the
immigration bill itself, but there were questions about its most
significant provisions. It was conducted May 18 to 23 with 1,125
adults, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three
The bill, which is backed by President Bush and a bipartisan group of
senators, would allow illegal immigrants who were in the United States
before Jan. 1 of this year to obtain legal status by paying fines and
passing background checks.
Two-thirds of those polled said illegal immigrants who had a good
employment history and no criminal record should gain legal status as
the bill proposes, which is by paying at least $5,000 in fines and
fees and receiving a renewable four-year visa.
Many Republican lawmakers have rejected this plan, calling it amnesty
that rewards immigrants who broke the law when they entered the United
States. But the poll showed that differences are not great between
Republicans and Democrats on this issue, with 66 percent of
Republicans in the poll favoring the legalization proposal, as well as
72 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of independents.
Rick Nuñez, a 29-year-old quality control technician from Pennsauken,
N. J., who identified himself as a Republican, said in a follow-up
telephone call that he favored a legalization plan.
"Illegal immigrants are imbedded in our nation, so allowing them to
apply for a work visa would be a good way to draw them in and set a
path for them to become legal," said Mr. Nuñez, whose family came from
Puerto Rico. "If they have been working here and are law abiding and
can contribute to our country, they should be allowed to stay and
Most of those polled agreed that illegal immigrants should eventually
be allowed to apply to become American citizens. But 59 percent said
illegal immigrants should be considered for citizenship only after
legal immigrants who have played by the rules.
Under the Senate bill, illegal immigrants would have to wait eight
years before they could become permanent residents and at least 13
years to become citizens.
Two-thirds of Americans in the survey favored creating a guest-worker
program for future immigrants. The bill would create a
temporary-worker program in which immigrants would come for three
stints of two years each, going home for one year between each stint
and returning home for good after the third.
More than half of those who favored the guest-worker program said the
workers should be allowed to apply to become permanent immigrants and
eventually American citizens, if they maintain a strong work history
and commit no crimes. About a third of those who favored the program
disagreed, saying guest workers should be required to return home
after their temporary period.
The bill does not include a path to citizenship for guest workers. In
the debate, Democrat senators have sharply criticized the
temporary-worker plan, saying it would create an underclass of easily
exploited low-skilled workers. On Wednesday, senators voted to cut
back the number of guest workers to 200,000 from the 400,000 proposed
in the bill.
The bill also calls for reinforcing the country's borders, cracking
down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and eliminating the
backlog of visa applications from aspiring legal immigrants. In the
poll, 75 percent of those who responded favored tougher penalties for
employers of illegal workers, and 82 percent said the federal
government should do more to reinforce the border. But only 15 percent
favored fences as the main method to reduce illegal border crossings.
The poll showed that Americans are uncertain about the benefits of the
most recent wave of immigration, and divided over how many immigrants
should come in the future. Fifty-seven percent said recent immigrants
had made a contribution to the United States. But 35 percent said that
in the long run, the new immigrants would make American society worse,
while only 28 percent said they would make it better.
A plurality of 48 percent favored imposing some controls on
immigration. But large minorities on either side disagreed, with a
quarter of respondents saying the United States should open its
borders to all immigrants, and a quarter saying that the borders
should be completely closed. These polarized positions may help
explain the acrimony of the immigration debate across the nation.
By large margins, people in the poll are aware that the majority of
the immigrants who have arrived in recent years are illegal, and 61
percent said that illegal immigration was a very serious problem. A
large majority, 70 percent of respondents, said they believed that
illegal immigrants weaken the American economy because they use public
services but do not pay corresponding taxes.
"This has nothing to do with any particular person or group of people,
but housing and schooling are going to illegal immigrants," said
Barbara Jackson, 55, a visiting nurse from the Bronx who identified
herself as a Democrat. "You build affordable housing and then put
someone in it who hasn't paid their dues. Do Americans' tax dollars
pay for us to be second?"
Economists have found that many undocumented workers have Social
Security and other taxes deducted from their paychecks, and have
contributed as much as $7 billion to the Social Security
Administration while claiming no benefits because of their illegal
status. But Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative
group, has reported that low-skilled illegal immigrant families cause
an overall fiscal drain.
Among those polled, a majority of 51 percent favored overhauling the
American immigration system to make it more attuned to economic
demands, giving priority to job skills and educational accomplishment.
Only 34 percent said that immigrants with family ties in the United
States should take precedence.
Family reunification has been the cornerstone of the immigration
system since 1965. The bill proposes to move to a merit system in
which points would be assigned for work skills and education.
"I think this country would benefit from having people relocate here
who have an educational background that would be an asset to the
country," said Delores Mitchell, 66, a retired social worker from
Highland Hills, Ohio, who identified herself as an independent.
"I just don't feel it should be based on whether family is here or
not. We need people who have more job skills," Ms. Mitchell said in a
follow-up interview to the poll.
Most Americans in the poll said they believed the country will be
served if immigrants can work legally. "When immigrants do take jobs,
they're hard workers," said Anna Cooper, 55, a homemaker in Venice,
Fla., who identified herself as an independent. "They just want to
work, that's the bottom line. They need a paycheck to take care of
Megan Thee, Marina Stefan and Dalia Sussman contributed reporting.