Americans Split on Linking Border Security and Citizenship in Immigration Reform

United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll shows sharp demographic divisions over how secure the border is now.

Immigration activists hold hands in front of Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. The Florida Immigrant Coalition, together with other immigrant families and community organizations, have initiated the "Di Que Si!" campaign, which translates into English "I said yes!," demanding immigration reform that creates a system that keeps families united. Activists and immigrants also asked for the suspension of deportations as lawmakers work on immigration reform, and announced they will join a national mobilization in favor of immigration reform in Washington D.C. on April 10. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz) (National Journal)

Most Americans say illegal immigrants should be allowed to remain in the country, but the public divides evenly on whether citizenship should be linked to stiff progress in securing the border, as many Senate Republicans are demanding, the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll has found

As the Senate floor debate on immigration reform intensifies, the survey found a broad agreement across racial, generational, and party lines that "immigrants who are now living in the U.S. illegally" should be permitted to remain in the U.S. But the poll found Americans split almost evenly on three other critical questions: whether those immigrants here illegally should be allowed to seek full-scale citizenship, whether citizenship should be tied to progress along the border, and whether the border today is secure.

On the most fundamental question of how to handle the estimated 11 million immigrants now in the U.S. illegally, just 25 percent of those surveyed said illegal immigrants "should not be allowed to stay in the country legally." But the remainder divided over what form legalization should take. The largest group, 45 percent, said those here illegally  "should be able to apply for U.S. citizenship," the approach taken in the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" immigration reform bill now on the Senate floor. The remaining 22 percent said they should be allowed to seek "permanent residency" but not citizenship, as some House Republicans prefer. (The rest said they were undecided.)

These results, which show little change from Pew Research Center polls asking the same questions in May and March, indicate a tight balance: While citizenship is by far the most popular option tested, only about half of those with opinions preferred it.

In the poll, Democrats leaned strongly toward citizenship, with 55 percent preferring that option, compared with 21 percent backing permanent residency, and 20 percent opposing any legal status. Republicans split more closely but still tilted clearly toward some form of legalization: 38 percent backed citizenship, while another 21 percent supported permanent residency without citizenship. The final 36 percent of Republicans opposed any legal status. Independents divided among 43 percent backing citizenship, 24 percent supporting permanent residency, and just 23 percent rejecting any legal status.

The Congressional Connection Poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International from June 13 to 16. It surveyed 1,004 adults by landline and cell phone, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

The Senate is nearing a critical vote on the proposal from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to delay any pathway to citizenship until federal officials certify massive improvements in border security. While most of the immigration bill's supporters consider that idea an unachievable "poison pill," the poll found substantial public support for the concept.

When asked if illegal immigrants "should not be placed on a path to citizenship until the government meets high standards for securing our borders against further illegal immigration" or if "citizenship opportunities should not be linked to border security because unforeseen national security events could cause millions of immigrants' citizenship status to remain in legal limbo," respondents divided exactly in half, with 45 percent picking the first choice, and 45 percent the second. (The remainder said they didn't know.)

This idea, strikingly, closely divided not only the public overall but most major demographic groups. Whites leaned slightly toward it and minorities slightly away from it, but in each case within the margin of error. The parties diverged somewhat more noticeably: Republicans supported linkage by a margin of 52 percent to 39 percent, while Democrats opposed it by 49 percent to 41 percent. Independents fell in between, with 48 percent opposing and 45 percent backing the connection.

Still that isn't as wide a chasm between the parties as polls find on many other issues. Likewise, the survey found that the idea of linking security with citizenship closely split not only supporters of legal status but opponents as well.

Not surprisingly, those who oppose providing legal status at all are the most enthusiastic about conditioning any citizenship on tighter border security: Exactly half of those skeptics backed the linkage. But even 41 percent of them opposed tying citizenship and security. Those who said illegal immigrants should be allowed to obtain permanent residency split almost in half, with 46 percent supporting a linkage to security and 47 percent opposing it. Even those who backed a pathway to citizenship divided relatively closely, with 43 percent supporting a linkage to security and 50 percent opposing it.

All of these results suggest that while Cornyn's proposal is likely to produce a stark partisan contrast in the Senate, it provokes greater ambivalence inside both parties' electoral coalitions.

As President Obama has touted increases in apprehensions and deportations, the poll found the public divided as well on the current state of border security. While just 7 percent of those polled said the border was "very" secure, another 41 percent described it as "somewhat" secure. Roughly an equal number described the border as "not too" (28 percent) or "not at all" secure (22 percent).

This question produced some of the survey's sharpest demographic and partisan divisions. While three-in-five minorities consider the border very or somewhat secure, only about two-in-five whites agreed. And while 68 percent of Democrats describe the border as at least somewhat secure, a resounding 69 percent of Republicans disagreed. Poll respondents from the West and East, each generally Democratic-leaning regions, were most likely to see the border as secure, while those from the red-dipped South (followed by the Midwest) were most likely to consider it insecure. That pattern implies partisanship is trumping proximity in assessing progress along the border.