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More Than 6-in-10 Americans Support a Path to Citizenship

Nearly half say Republican position on immigration has hurt GOP in recent elections

Washington — As the immigration debate in Washington heats up, more than 6-in-10 (63 percent) Americans agree that immigrants currently living in the country illegally should be allowed to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, a new major survey finds.

Majorities of Democrats (71 percent), independents (64 percent) and Republicans (53 percent) support an earned path to citizenship, as do majorities of all religious groups, including Hispanic Catholics (74 percent), Hispanic Protestants (71 percent), black Protestants (70 percent), Jewish Americans (67 percent), Mormons (63 percent), white Catholics (62 percent), white mainline Protestants (61 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (56 percent).

The new survey of nearly 4,500 respondents was conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with The Brookings Institution, and is one of the largest surveys ever conducted on immigration issues.

“Support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are already living in the United States is that rarest of rarities in our polarized political environment—a policy that enjoys majority support across partisan and religious lines,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research Institute.

The survey also finds that nearly half (45 percent) of Americans say the Republican Party’s position on immigration has hurt the GOP in recent elections. Approximately 4-in-10 Republicans (39 percent) and Americans who identify with the Tea Party (41 percent) also think the Republican Party’s position on immigration has hurt the party in recent elections, as do 57 percent of Democrats. About 4-in-10 (42 percent) Americans, including close to half (46 percent) of Republicans and a similar number of Tea Party members (44 percent), say it did not make a difference.

Americans are more likely to say they trust the Democratic Party (39%), rather than the Republican Party (29%), to do a better job handling the issue of immigration. However, nearly 1-in-4 (23%) Americans say they do not trust either party to handle the issue.

“The opening politicians perceive on immigration reflects something more than opinion at the top of the political system,” said E.J. Dionne, Jr., Brookings senior fellow. “Rank-and-file Americans seem prepared to support broad immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship – including a majority of Republicans.”

The survey also finds that broad support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants exists amidst concerns about sweeping demographic changes in the country.

“Americans see the social impact of immigrants through ideological lenses,” said Daniel Cox, PRRI research director. “Both conservatives and liberals say immigrants have a modest impact on their local communities, but conservatives are much more likely than liberals to say immigrants are having a major impact on American society.”

The survey finds that Americans register significant concern about cultural changes in post-World War II America. Most Americans (54 percent) say that since the 1950s, American culture and way of life has changed for the worse, compared to 40 percent who say it has changed for the better.

“We found a surprisingly high level of nostalgia for the 1950s, and understanding these concerns about rapid cultural changes is critical for understanding the debates about immigration today,” said William Galston, Brookings senior fellow. “While majorities of African Americans and Hispanic Americans say the changes in American culture and way of life since the 1950s have been for the better, four-in-ten disagree, and more than six-in-ten white Americans—women as well as men–say they have been for the worse.”

Among the findings:

Americans rank immigration reform sixth out of seven issues, far behind economic issues, as the highest political priority for the president and Congress. Less than one-quarter (24 percent) of Americans say that reforming the nation’s immigration system should be the highest priority for the president and Congress. Forty-seven percent say it should be a high priority but not the highest, and 27 percent say it should be given a lower priority.

Although deportations of illegal immigrants have increased since the beginning of the Obama administration, fewer than 3-in-10 (28 percent) Americans correctly state that deportations have increased over the past five or six years. A plurality (42 percent) of Americans believe that the number of deportations has stayed the same, while nearly 1-in-5 (18 percent) say deportations have decreased.

There is broad agreement about a set of values that should guide immigration policy.

  • Five values are rated very or extremely important as guides to immigration reform by approximately 8-in-10 Americans: promoting national security (84 percent), keeping families together (84 percent), protecting the dignity of every person (82 percent), ensuring fairness to taxpayers (77 percent), and enforcing the rule of law (77 percent).
  • Nearly 7-in-10 (69 percent) also say following the Golden Rule—“providing immigrants the same opportunity that I would want if my family were immigrating to the U.S.”—is a very or extremely important value.

Far fewer Americans say continuing America’s heritage as a nation of immigrants (52 percent) or following the biblical example of welcoming the stranger (50 percent) are very or extremely important guides for immigration reform.

Overall, Americans are more likely to have positive rather than negative views about the impact of immigrants.

  • A majority (54 percent) of Americans believe that the growing number of newcomers from other countries helps strengthen American society, while a significant minority (40 percent) says that newcomers threaten traditional American customs and values.
  • Six-in-ten (59 percent) Americans believe that immigrants today see themselves as part of the American community, much like immigrants from previous eras, while 36 percent disagree.

Americans generally perceive that immigrants are having a greater impact on American society as a whole than on their own communities. Nearly half (46 percent) say immigrants today are changing American society a lot, compared to less than one-third (32 percent) who say that immigrants today are changing their local communities a lot.

The face of American society has changed dramatically over the course of a single generation. More than 7-in-10 (71 percent) seniors (age 65 and older) identify as white Christian, compared to less than 3-in-10 (28 percent) Millennials (age 18-29).

A majority (54%) of Americans say that since the 1950s, American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the worse, while 4-in-10 (40%) say it has mostly changed for the better. There are significant racial divisions, with 61% of white Americans reporting that American culture has changed for the worse, while majorities of black (56%) and Hispanic Americans (51%) report that things have changed for the better.

When asked directly, only about 1-in-10 white, non-Hispanic Americans say they agree that the idea of an America where most people are not white bothers them, but when asked indirectly in a controlled survey experiment, agreement rises to nearly one-third (31 percent).

More than 6-in-10 (61 percent) Americans favor allowing illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to gain legal resident status if they join the military or go to college, a policy that comprises the basic elements of the DREAM Act. Approximately one-third (34 percent) of Americans oppose to this policy.

Few Americans favor a policy colloquially known as “self-deportation,” in which conditions are made so difficult for illegal immigrants that they return to their home country on their own (34 percent favor, 64 percent oppose).

Read the report.

Read the topline questionnaire, including the survey methodology.

The Religion, Values and Immigration Survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with The Brookings Institution. Results from the survey were based on 4,465 bilingual (Spanish and English) telephone interviews of adults 18 years of age and older, including 1,774 respondents who were interviewed on a cell phone. The margin of error for the survey is +/ 1.7 percentage points. 

Public Religion Research Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization specializing in research at the intersection of religion, values and public life. The Religion, Values, and Immigration Survey was funded by a generous grant from The Ford Foundation, with additional support from The Nathan Cummings Foundation, The Carnegie Corporation, and Public Interest Projects.