Stateline Story

Immigration Poll: Target Work, Not Border

More Americans would prefer workplace sanctions to reduce illegal immigration from Mexico rather than fences or additional border agents, according to a new national poll.

But overall, Americans remain fractured about how to handle the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already living in the country, concludes a poll released by the Pew Research Center on March 30. The findings provide insight on issues now before Congress, which sets immigration policy and is caught up in a divisive debate about reforms, but also on policy questions increasingly popping up in states legislatures.

Of 2,000 people polled nationally, 32 percent said illegal immigrants already here should stay permanently; 32 percent said they should be granted temporary work passes, and 27 percent said they should go home. The U.S. House of Representatives has balked at President Bush's proposal for temporary work visas, and the issue is now before the U.S. Senate.

To curb illegal crossings along the southern border, almost half of the public — 49 percent — said that penalizing employers who hire undocumented workers would be most effective, compared to 9 percent who preferred building more fences on the border and 33 percent who named more border patrol agents as the best way to deter illegal entry from Mexico.

State lawmakers already have begun to suggest targeting employers as a way to cope with illegal immigration. As of February, 71 of 368 immigration bills introduced in 42 statehouses dealt with employment, including bills in 12 states to penalize companies for hiring illegal immigrants, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In this absence of federal solutions to illegal immigration, states all across the county increasingly have begun to experiment with ways to cope with waves of immigrants being drawn to local jobs. The approaches range from stepping up enforcement against illegal immigrants to accommodating them in schools and job centers.

In the poll, conducted jointly by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Hispanic Center, governors rated better than President Bush in public confidence in their ability to handle immigration issues. Of those polled, 54 percent said they had "a lot" or "some" trust in their governor to deal with immigration, compared to only 42 percent for President Bush.

Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) of Arizona had the highest approval rating among five metropolitan areas surveyed separately, with 64 percent in Phoenix expressing "a lot" or "some" trust. Last year, Napolitano declared a state of emergency to deal with illegal immigration along the border, and she has been active this year in pushing state immigration reform.

The other areas polled separately were Chicago, Las Vegas, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Washington D.C.

One of the most volatile issues being broached in the states is whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to access government-funded social programs. In general, illegal immigrants are limited to emergency health care and public schooling through high school.

But that reality hasn't stopped state voters and lawmakers from passing bans on illegal immigrants' access to state services. In 2004, Arizona voters approved a ballot initiative to prohibit publicly funded services to illegal immigrants. Georgia could do the same if Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) signs a bill passed this week by the Legislature. And Colorado activists are working to put on the ballot an initiative similar to Arizona's 2004 measure.

More than two-thirds of those polled nationally said illegal immigrants should not be eligible for social services. In the five cities surveyed separately, more than 60 percent opposed letting illegal immigrants receive taxpayer-funded services.

Another common debate at the state level is over whether to let illegal immigrant students receive in-state college tuition. In Illinois, one of nine states that grant in-state rates to illegal immigrants, the Pew Research Center found that 54 percent of Chicago respondents agreed with the policy. The poll did not ask about in-state tuition nationally.

The survey did find that a large majority — 71 percent-- of Americans support free public education for illegal immigrant children through high school. That already is required under a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

More than three-of-four surveyed favored a new kind of driver's license or Social Security card that would prove whether someone was living in the country legally.

Driver's licenses already are being revamped under a 2005 federal law — the Real ID Act — that for the first time dictates how states must document identity when issuing a driver's license and overrides policies in nine states that now allow agencies to license illegal immigrant drivers.

States could opt to follow Tennessee and Utah in issuing "certificates" to illegal immigrant drivers. Tennessee authorities, however, recently suspended their program over fear of fraud.

Two-of-three polled nationally also backed the creation of a database that would check the citizenship of all prospective employees.

Stateline.org, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, and the Pew Hispanic Center are among six projects that make up the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan, non-advocacy "fact tank" that provides information on issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.

Tags: Immigration