Apr 022006

WASHINGTON – Americans are divided about whether illegal immigrants help or hurt the country, a poll finds. More than one-half of those questioned are open to allowing undocumented workers to obtain some temporary legal status so they can stay in the United States.

At the same time, people doubt that erecting a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border could help to fix such a complex and enduring problem, an AP-Ipsos poll found. Two-thirds do not think it would work.

“You can’t go and round up 11 million people and ship them out of the country,” said Robert Kelly. The Chicago lawyer is among the 56 percent of Americans who favor offering some kind of legal status. “It just isn’t practical,” he said.

A smaller but still significant share – 41 percent – opposes offering any kind of legal status, giving voice to a law-and-order mind-set that bristles at the notion of officially recognizing those who did not play by the rules to get here.

“Illegal is criminal,” said Louella Kelly, a 65-year-old grandmother from Round Rock, Texas.

She said her 16-year-old granddaughter has had a hard time finding part-time work because of all the jobs taken by those who are illegally in the country. “If we’re going to give them amnesty, then why don’t we give amnesty to all the people who break out of jail?”

Political analysts see an opening in such poll results for President Bush, who supports a temporary guest-worker program.

The Republican Party is divided. Business interests want to preserve their access to foreign workers as a cheap labor force, while many conservatives would rather get tough on illegal immigrants.

The survey found 62 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans favored temporary worker status.

“If I were in the White House, I would be pretty pleased about this,” said Charles Franklin, a University of Wisconsin political science professor who studies public opinion. “It does suggest pretty strongly that the president has the opportunity to drive public opinion on this.”

Arizona State University professor Bruce Merrill said immigration was the first issue he had seen in 20 years that did not clearly break along partisan lines. “Conservative Democrats don’t feel any different from conservative Republicans,” he said, with both camps strongly opposing the idea of rewarding people who broke the law to enter the country.

The AP-Ipsos survey of 1,003 adults was conducted Tuesday through Thursday. Debate is swirling in Congress over a proposal that would legalize many illegal immigrants in the United States and expand guest worker programs for an estimated 400,000 immigrants each year.

Two-thirds of those surveyed think illegal immigrants fill jobs that most Americans do not want, the poll found.

But the survey found greater ambiguity on whether illegal immigrants are good or bad for American society. Fifty-one percent said illegal immigrants mostly make a contribution to society and 42 percent said they were mostly a drain.

Likewise, there was deep division on how serious a crime it should be to enter the country illegally. Fifty-one percent thought it should be considered a “minor offense” and 47 percent considered it a “serious criminal offense.”

“Americans are quite divided, but it seems as if they are looking for a solution that involves some sort of legal documentation,” said Brian Sanderoff, president of Research and Polling Inc., based in Albuquerque, N.M. He predicted that as the issue gets more attention in coming months, more Americans will start forming strong opinions.

Both pro- and anti-immigration interests predicted opinion would move in their direction as people become better informed.

Michelle Waslin, director of immigration policy research for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, said that as people consider the specific requirements that immigrants would have to meet to obtain legal status, they are more supportive of the idea.

Paul Egan, director of government relations for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors stricter immigration rules, said that when people fully understand the potential implications of the guest worker program, they will be more likely to oppose it.

The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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