Polling Summary: Public Support for Reform Stays Strong

Director of Policy and Advocacy

January 21, 2015

Introduction

With no prospect for reform in the 113th Congress, on November 20, 2014, President Obama used his executive authority to set in motion changes to immigration rules and enforcement to address some of the problems with our broken immigration system. House Republicans vehemently opposed the President’s actions and held hearings and passed legislation to undo the executive action.

The most controversial element of the president’s executive action on immigration is the temporary relief from deportation to some parents of children who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. This change in policy could potentially help more than four million people. In addition, the Deferred Action for Childhood Action program will be expanded, offering relief from deportation for an additional 270,000 people.

In the weeks following the president’s announcement, a number of surveys have tested public attitudes toward executive action. Following is a summary of some of those surveys. Below that is a summary of surveys going back to the spring of 2013 (just prior to passage of the Senate’s immigration reform bill), demonstrating support for immigration reform with a path to citizenship. Despite the controversy over executive action, support for comprehensive immigration reform has changed little since the president made his announcement. Indeed, it has remained consistently strong over the past two years.

Executive Action: Broad Support for the Policy, if not the Process

Surveys testing public attitudes towards executive action all show that the policy result of executive action that allows some undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. and work is popular. Solid majorities support allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. and work legally if they meet certain requirements. These findings are consistent with dozens of public opinion polls over the last two years showing public support for immigration reform that includes a way for undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. and work legally. The same level of support is not shown for the president’s methods.

  • CBS News (January 9-12, 2015, of 1,001 U.S. adults): This poll found that 62 percent of Americans think illegal immigrants who pass a background check and pay their taxes should be allowed to stay given certain requirements. Some 55 percent of those surveyed say Congress should allow the president’s executive actions to stand even though 46 percent believed he exceeded his authority in acting. Four in 10 believe lawmakers should overturn the actions.
  • Washington Post/ABC News (December 11 to 14, 2014, of 1,000 U.S. adults): In this poll, respondents were asked whether they favored or opposed protecting some undocumented immigrants from deportation:

“Obama has taken an executive action under which as many as four million of the country’s undocumented immigrants will not face deportation over the next three years if they pass a background check and meet other requirements. Most will need to show that they have been in the United States for at least five years and have children who were born here. Do you support or oppose this immigration program?

A majority (52%) of all respondents favored the program as described. However, there were significant partisan differences. Democrats (81%) and Independents (51%) favored the policy, while 73% of Republicans opposed. When asked about the president’s method—specifically, whether the president exceeded his authority—a plurality (49%) said he did.  (Accompanying article: “GOP gets a bounce from midterm wins.”)

  • Pew Research Center/USA Today (December 3 to 7, 2014, 0f 1,507 U.S. adults): With similar results to the PRRI and CNN polls mentioned below, this poll found public support for allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally if they meet certain conditions (70%). There was more division about accomplishing this through executive action, however. Respondents were asked if they approved of the president’s executive action “that expands the number of undocumented immigrants who are allowed to stay and work in the country.” Only 46% approved, with 50% saying they did not approve. Overall, the public’s approval of the way the president is handling the immigration is up six points after the executive order announcement (compared to November of 2013), but among Latinos, approval of the president on the immigration issue was up 24 points from a year earlier. (Accompanying article: “Immigration Action Gets Mixed Response, but Legal Pathway Still Popular.)
  • Gallup (November 24 to December 7, 2014, of 6,084 U.S. adults): This poll merely asked respondents if they were following news about “executive actions President Obama plans to take dealing with certain categories of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.,” and were asked if they approved of these executive actions. Despite lack of detail, the results were similar to other polls asking about the executive action, with 51% of adults overall disapproving. Among respondents born outside the U.S., however, approval of executive action was much higher. More than two-thirds of immigrants (69%) said they approved of executive action, and among foreign-born Latinos, approval was at 75%. (Approval was 51% among U.S.-born Latinos, according to this survey.) The survey did not ask if respondents approved of the substance of the executive action. (Accompanying article: S. Hispanics Back Obama Immigration Action.)

A separate Gallup weekly tracking poll of the president’s approval rating showed a 10-point increase in approval among Latinos in the week following the executive action announcement.

  • Public Religion Research Institute (November 25 to 30, 2014, of 1,011 U.S. adults): This poll produced similar results to the earlier CNN poll (see below) showing broad public support for the policy results of executive action. Respondents were asked if they favored “[a]llowing illegal immigrants who are the parents of children with legal status to stay in the U.S. for three years without being subject to deportation, if they pass a background check and have lived in the country for at least five years.” Nearly three-quarters (72%) support this policy. Among Latinos, support is much higher (89%), with support among young people (18 to 29) also very high (83%). However, only half of respondents (50%) think the president should have taken executive action, while 45% said he should not have. (Accompanying article: Survey: 7-in-10 Americans Support Goals of Obama’s Immigration Action, but are Divided over Use of Executive Action.)

More generally, and consistent with polls taken over the previous two years, a sizeable majority of the public (77%) believes undocumented immigrant should be allowed to stay legally, provided they meet certain requirements.

  • CNN/ORC International (November 21 to 23, 2014, of 1,045 U.S. adults): This poll, conducted immediately after the president’s announcement, highlighted public support for changing policy to allow undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. under certain circumstances. Respondents were told that, “[a] major part of Obama’s new policy changes will allow some immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally to stay here temporarily and apply for a work permit if they have children who are U.S. citizens.” They were asked if they thought the plan “goes too far, does not go far enough, or is about right.” Only 26% thought the plan went too far. Half (50%) thought the plan was about right, while nearly a quarter (22%) thought Obama did not go far enough. On the other hand, more than half of respondents (56%) were opposed to “Obama using executive orders to implement these policies.”

Respondents were asked how Republicans should respond to the president’s executive actions, and more than three-quarters (76%) of respondents said they thought Republicans should spend more time “attempting to pass a bill that makes comprehensive reforms to U.S. immigration policy,” while only 21% thought Republicans should focus on overturning the president’s policies.

Despite public disapproval of the president’s method for changing immigration policies, there was a 10-point increase in the public’s approval of the way the president is handling “illegal immigration.” Among young people (aged 18 to 34) and minorities, the increase in approval was larger—13% and 15% respectively. (Accompanying article: “Poll: Obama’s immigration policy popular, but approach isn’t.”)

  • YouGov/Huffington Post (November 20 to 23, of 1,000 U.S. adults): When asked about their views on undocumented immigrants with U.S. citizen children, 52% of respondents to this survey thought they should be allowed to stay in the U.S. legally, verses 31% who thought they should be deported. By contrast, however, a plurality (47%) said they disapproved of the president’s “plans to halt deportations for as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants, such as parents, those who came to the U.S. as children and others with long-standing ties to the country.” Support for executive action was higher among Latinos (62% approval) and young people (aged 18 to 29, 53%).

On Immigration Reform, Congress Never Caught Up to Public Support

The 113th Congress was unable to complete its work to reform the immigration system. In 2013, the Senate passed a bill that made adjustments to the legal immigration system and provided a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who could meet certain conditions. The House, however, did not pass any immigration bills.

The American public consistently supported immigration reform similar to that outlined in the bipartisan Senate plan, including the path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. During the two-year debate, dozens of polls asked the public what should be done about undocumented immigrants. When pollsters describe an approach similar to what was included in Senate legislation, a majority of respondents, in poll after poll, said they favor the approach. Specifically, the public favors allowing undocumented immigrants to gain legal status if certain conditions are met—learning English, paying taxes, having no criminal history, etc.

On this point, the partisan divide in Congress was always greater than it is in the general public. Democrats, Republicans, and Independents favored a conditional path to legal status or citizenship for undocumented immigrants. There are loud and passionate voices that want nothing other than mass deportation for undocumented immigrants, but those voices are a minority and do not reflect public consensus.

Graph 1

The following list illustrates the consistent support of the public for immigration reform with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who can meet certain requirements. Although there was a dip in public support during the influx of Central American mothers and children in the summer of 2014, that dip turned out to be temporary. The list includes only those national (and some regional) polls going back to the time immediately prior to the passage of Senate legislation.

  • NBC News/Wall Street Journal (November 14 to 17, 2014, of 1,000 U.S. adults): This poll, conducted just prior to President Obama’s announcement of executive action on immigration, asked respondents, “If a proposed pathway to citizenship allowed foreigners staying illegally in the United States the opportunity to eventually become legal American citizens if they pay a fine, any back taxes, pass a security background check, and take other required steps, would you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose this proposal?” Nearly three in four respondents (74%) said they would favor such a proposal.
  • Edison Research Exit Poll (November 4, 2014, of 19,441 voters leaving 281 randomly selected precincts across the United States, and includes 2,800 telephone interviews with absentee and early voters): Persons who had voted in the 2014 mid-term elections were asked if “Most illegal immigrants working in the U.S. should be offered legal status or deported?” Even without describing any conditions for legal status, the majority of voters (57%), gave “offered legal status” as their preference, verses 39% who said they should be deported. (Only 35% of Republicans favored offering legal status, vs. 64% of Democrats.)
  • AP-GfK Public Affairs (October 16 to 20, 2014, of 1,608 U.S. adults interviewed online (968 likely voters)): Respondents in this poll were asked, “Do you favor or oppose providing a legal way for illegal immigrants already in the United States to become U.S. citizens?” Again, even without describing conditions for the pathway to citizenship (such as those contained in the Senate bill) 54% of respondents said they favored allowing undocumented immigrants to stay and become citizens.
  • Pew Research Center (October 15 to 20, 2014, of 2,003 U.S. adults): This survey asked respondents which came closer to their view about how the U.S. should handle undocumented immigrants: “They should not be allowed to stay in this country legally” or “There should be a way for them to stay in the country legally, if certain requirements are met.” Nearly three-quarters (71%) said there should be a way for undocumented immigrants to stay legally. While there are differences in level of support, respondents affiliated with both parties support allowing undocumented immigrants a chance to stay legally—Democrats (82%) and Republicans (57%). (Accompanying article: “As Midterms Near, GOP Leads on Key Issues, Democrats Have a More Positive Image.”)
  • New York Times/CBS News (September 12 to 15, 2014, of 1,009 U.S. adults (including 854 registered voters)): Respondents to this survey were asked which came closest to their view about “illegal immigrants who are living in the U.S.?” In total, 63% of respondents said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay and either apply for citizenship (50%) or to stay but not be allowed to apply for citizenship (13%). Only 32% said undocumented immigrants should be deported.
  • Washington Post/ABC News (September 4 to 7, 2014, of 1,001 U.S. adults): This survey, taken while the Central American refugee crisis was still fresh, showed less public support for allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. Respondents were asked, “Do you think undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States should or should not be given the right to live and work here legally?” The question mentioned no detail of conditions that would have to be met by undocumented immigrants before given the right to live here legally. Just under half (46%) said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay here legally, while half (50%) said they should not be. Only 25% of Republicans favored legal status, while 59% of Democrats favored legal status. Independents were split (49% to 49%). (Accompanying interactive site: “Wide support for striking ISIS, but weak approval for Obama.”)
  • NBC News/Wall Street Journal (September 3 to 7, 2014, of 1,000 registered voters): This poll contained two questions on immigration reform. The first asked respondents if they favored or opposed “a proposal to create a pathway to citizenship that would allow foreigners who have jobs but are staying illegally in the United States the opportunity to eventually become legal American citizens.” The second question asked respondents if they would favor a path to citizenship if foreigners who are here illegally “pay a fine, any back taxes, pass a security background check, and take other required steps.” Consistent with other polls, more respondents were in favor of the path to citizenship when it was described in more detail (72% 53%). Taken after a summer of Republican attacks on President Obama’s response to the Central American refugee crisis, this poll showed more public receptiveness to Republicans on the issue of immigration. (Accompanying article, “Americans Now Favor GOP on Immigration.”)
  • Politico (August 29 to September 7, 2014, of 917 likely voters in competitive House and Senate races): This poll simply asked the question, “Do you support or oppose comprehensive immigration reform?” Despite a lack of detail about what comprehensive immigration reform entails, support for comprehensive reform outweighed opposition two to one (66% to 33%). In the same poll, however, respondents were asked if they “support or oppose a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants now living in the United States, and a smaller percentage (but still a majority, 51%) said they supported a pathway to citizenship.
  • Fox News (August 10 to 12, 2014, of 1,001 registered voters): This poll asked a question about immigration reform in a novel way: “When it comes to immigration reform, if you had to choose between just these two options, which would you prefer happen this year? 1. For Congress to pass legislation that only focuses on creating a pathway to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants For Congress to do nothing at all on immigration reform this year” (emphasis added). Respondents favored a path to citizenship by 65% to 20% who preferred that Congress do nothing.
  • AP/GfK Public Affairs (July 24 to 28, 2014, of 1,044 U.S. adults, interviewed online): This survey (also taken during the height of the Central American refugee crisis) simply asked, “Do you favor or oppose providing a legal way for illegal immigrants already in the United States to become U.S. citizens? A majority (51%) said they favored this idea.
  • Public Religion Research Institute (July 23 to July 27, 2014, of 1,026 U.S. adults): This survey asked respondents what the U.S. should do about undocumented immigrants and were given three choices: 1) “Allow them away to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements;” 2) “Allow them to become permanent legal residents, but not citizens;” and 3) “Identify and deport them.” The most popular choice was to allow them to become citizens (58%) In total, 75% of respondents favored allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S., vs. 22% who favored deportation. (Accompanying article: “Nearly 7-in-10 Americans See Unaccompanied Children at Border as Refugees, Not Illegal Immigrants.”)
  • Pew Research Center (July 8 to 14, 2014, of 1,805 U.S. adults): This poll asked respondents which came closer to their view concerning the treatment of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.: “They should not be allowed to stay in this country legally” or “There should be a way for them to stay in the country legally, if certain requirements are met.” Respondents favored allowing undocumented immigrants to stay by 68% to 30% who felt they should not be allowed to stay. Majorities of Democrats (77%), independents (70%) and Republicans (54%) favor allowing undocumented immigrant to stay in the U.S., though Republicans who are sympathetic to the Tea Party movement favor not allowing undocumented immigrants to stay (56%). (Accompanying article: “Surge of Central American Children Roils U.S. Immigration DebateComplete Report)
  • Harper Polling (June 24 to 28, 2014, of 1,000 likely voters nationwide): This poll, commissioned by the Partnership for a New American Economy, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers, asked respondents their opinion about an immigration plan similar to Speaker Boehner’s “immigration principles released early in 2014. That is, a plan that:

“secures our borders, expands visas for high-skill workers and farm workers, provides an employer verification program, allows young persons brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents an opportunity to earn citizenship, and provides visas to live and work here legally to undocumented immigrants without a criminal record who pay penalties and back taxes.”

Overall, 61% of respondents said they would “strongly” or “somewhat” support such a plan. A majority of Republicans, 54%, said they would support such a plan, as did 76% of Democrats and 61% of Independents.

Respondents were also asked to choose which treatment of undocumented immigrants they most agreed with—deportation, legal status without citizenship or legal status with eligibility for citizenship. Overall, 68% were in favor of allowing undocumented immigrants to stay, with only 28% choosing deportation, and the rest split evenly between citizenship and no citizenship. Majorities of Republicans (54%), Democrats (76%), and Independents (69%) said they supported allowing undocumented immigrants to stay, with Republicans and independents preferring legal status without citizenship, and Democrats favoring eligibility for citizenship.

This poll also tested the idea that the immigration system can’t be fixed because of a concern about the administration’s enforcement of existing laws. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of respondents did not think that was a valid reason not to fix problems that exist with current laws. While Republicans in Congress have used this argument as a reason for their inaction on immigration reform, only 18% of Republican voters in this poll agreed.

  • Public Religion Research Institute (April 7 to 27, 2014, call back survey of 1,534 adults nationwide): The Public Religion Research Institute, in partnership with the Brookings Institution, called back the same adults surveyed a year ago, to gauge changes in public opinion on a range of issues. The conclusion was that the public supports a path to citizenship and it has consistently done so throughout the current congressional debate on immigration reform. In 2014, 79% of respondents felt that immigrants “currently living in the U.S. illegally” should be allowed either to “become citizens provided they meet certain requirements” or to “become permanent legal residents, but not citizens.” A year ago, the total was 77%. A path to citizenship is the preferred option, with 62% support.

A report accompanying the survey breaks down attitudes by various characteristics, including political affiliation. As with other surveys mentioned in this paper, this survey finds that allowing undocumented immigrants to stay and become either citizens or permanent residents is supported by Democrats (87%), Independents (77%), Republicans (68%) and even supporters of the tea party (60%). The report finds that the biggest predictor of opposition to immigration reform is trust in Fox News. Interestingly, Fox News, like other major media outlets, does its own public opinion surveys, and those surveys are consistent with all the others. (For example, this Fox survey from January 2014 found 68% support for a path to citizenship, including 60% support among Republicans.)

  • New York Times/CBS News (February 19 to 23, 2014, of 1,644 adults nationwide): This poll asked the question: “Which comes closest to your view about illegal immigrants who are living in the U.S.? 1. They should be allowed to stay in the U.S. and eventually apply for citizenship. 2. They should be allowed to stay in the U.S. legally, but not be allowed to apply for citizenship or 3. They should be required to leave the U.S.”

Overall, a substantial majority, 69%, said that “illegal immigrants” should be allowed to stay. Preference for allowing immigrants to stay crossed party lines. A majority of Republicans (58%), and strong majorities of Democrats (82%) and Independents (69%) supported that option. Overall, allowing immigrants to apply for citizenship was favored (53%) over allowing them to stay without having the chance to become citizens (16%).

  • Pew Research Center (February 14 to 23, 2014, of 1,821 adults, including an oversample of young adults aged 18 to 33): Respondents were asked: “Which comes closer to your view about how to handle undocumented immigrants who are now living in the U.S.? Should they not be allowed to stay in the country legally, or should there be a way for those who meet certain requirements to stay in the country legally?” Overall, 73% said they should be allowed to stay, including 81% of Democrats, 74% of independents, 64% of Republicans, 61% of “conservative Republicans” and 56% of tea party supporters.

Respondents were given a choice between allowing undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship (46%) verses legal status without citizenship (24% favoring that option). Even among conservative Republicans, citizenship status was preferred (31% to 27%). Only among those who said they identified with the tea party was there a slightly greater preference for legal status without citizenship—28% to 25%.

  • Gallup Poll (February 6 to 9, 2014, of 1,023 adults nationwide): This poll included a question asking Americans how important it was to them that the government took steps this year to deal with 1) “controlling U.S. borders to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S.,” and 2) “developing a plan to deal with the large number of illegal immigrants who are already living in the U.S.” For the first time since Gallup began asking that question, an equal number of Americans felt it was “extremely important” to deal with the current undocumented population (44%) as it was to deal with border security (43%). While 56% of Republicans said it was “extremely important” to secure the border, this represents a decline of 12% since Gallup asked that question in 2011, and is consistent with a similar drop in concern about border security among Democrats and Independents.
  • CNN/ORC International (January 31 to February 2, 2014, of 1,010 adults, including 900 voters nationwide): This poll included the following question:

 “Here are some questions about how the U.S. government should treat illegal immigrants who have been in this country for a number of years, hold a job, speak English and are willing to pay any back taxes that they owe. Would you favor or oppose a bill that allowed those immigrants to stay in this country rather than being deported and eventually allow them to apply for U.S. citizenship?”

Overall, 81% of respondents said they favored such a plan. Only 17% were opposed. Support extended across party and ideological lines. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of Republicans said they supported the plan, compared to 88% of Democrats and 81% of independents. Of those who said they were conservative, 75% supported the plan. Even 72% of those who said they were tea party supporters said they supported allowing undocumented immigrants to stay here and eventually apply for citizenship. There was not much difference among age groups. Among 18- to 34-year olds, support was 88%, while among those 65 and older, support was 80%.

  • Fox News (January 19 to 21, 2014, of 1,010 registered voters nationwide): “Which of the following comes closest to your view about what government policy should be toward illegal immigrants currently in the United States?” (Allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country and eventually qualify for US citizenship, but only if they meet certain requirements like paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check: 68%)
  • CBS News (January 17 to 21, 2014, of 1,018 adults nationwide): “Which comes closest to your view about illegal immigrants who are living in the U.S.?” (They should be allowed to stay in the U.S. and eventually apply for citizenship: 54%)
  • Public Religion Research Institute (November 6 to 10, 2013, of 1,005 adults nationwide): “Which statement comes closest to your view about how the immigration system should deal with immigrants who are currently living in the U.S. illegally?” (Allow them a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements: 63%)
  • CBS News (October 18 to 21, 2013, of 1,007 adults nationwide): “Would you favor or oppose providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the U.S. if they met certain requirements including a waiting period, paying fines and back taxes, passing criminal background checks, and learning English?” (Support: 77%)
  • Quinnipiac University (July 28 to 31, 2013, of 1,468 registered voters): “As you may know, the U.S. Senate recently voted to pass legislation reforming the immigration system. The bill would allow illegal immigrants already in the country to become citizens after 13 years if they pay a fine and learn English. The bill would also double the number of border patrol agents, and double the amount of fencing along the Mexican border. In general, do you support or oppose this bill? (Support: 64%)
  • CBS News (July 18 to 22, 2013, of 1,036 adults): “Would you favor or oppose providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the U.S. if they met certain requirements including a waiting period, paying fines and back taxes, passing criminal background checks, and learning English? (Favor: 78%)
  • Washington Post/ABC News (July 10 to 14, 2013, of 1,004 adults): “Overall, do you support or oppose a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants now living in the United States?” (Support: 55%)
  • Quinnipiac University (June 28 to July 8, 2013, of 2,014 registered voters): “Which comes closest to your view about illegal immigrants who are currently living in the United States? A) They should be allowed to stay in the United States and to eventually apply for US citizenship. B) They should be allowed to remain in the United States, but not be allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship. C) They should be required to leave the U.S.” (Should be allowed to stay in U.S. and apply for citizenship: 54%)
  • Gallup Poll (June 13 – July 5, 2013, of 4,373 adults): “Would you favor or oppose each of the following as part of legislation to address the issue of illegal immigration?” (Allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens: 88%)
  • Gallup Poll (June 15 – 16, 2013, of 1,015 adults): “Would you vote for or against a law that would allow illegal immigrants living in the U.S. the opportunity to become citizens after a long waiting period if they paid taxes and a penalty, pass a criminal background check, and learn English?” (Vote for: 87%)
  • Fox News Poll (June 9 – 11, 2013, of 1,019 registered voters): “Do you favor or oppose allowing the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country to remain in the country and eventually — years down the road — qualify for U.S. citizenship, as long as they meet certain requirements like paying back taxes, learning English, and passing a background check?” (Support: 74%)
  • NBC News-Wall Street Journal Poll (May 30 – June 2, 2013, of 1,000 adults): “If a proposed pathway to citizenship allowed foreigners staying illegally in the United States the opportunity to eventually become legal American citizens, would you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose this proposal?” (Strongly or somewhat favor: 52%)