According to the Pew poll released on Thursday, a whopping 73 percent of Americans believe undocumented immigrant should be able to live and work legally in the country. And a plurality of 44 percent favor granting them eventual citizenship as well, a core component of the bipartisan immigration bill being debated in the Senate. The poll, which surveyed 1,504 adults and has a margin of error of 2.9 points, is in line with an array of surveys showing strong bipartisan support for legalizing the undocumented population in one way or another.
What's more surprising is how respondents feel about legal immigration. A plurality of 36 percent say immigration levels should be decreased overall, versus 31 percent who say they should stay at present levels and 25 percent who say they should be increased. There's some partisan divide here but not a ton: 41 percent of Republicans want to decrease legal immigration versus 31 percent of Democrats and 38 percent of Independents.
Despite the poll's findings, few of the leading opponents of a path to citizenship within Congress actively call for a decrease in legal immigration. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) has been the most skeptical of increasing immigration levels overall, but many reform critics like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) have suggested expanding legal immigration -- just without a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Mitt Romney, who ran on a policy of "self-deportation" and refused to entertain the idea of any kind of legal status for the vast majority of undocumented immigrants, called for a major expansion of visas for workers with advanced degrees in high-tech fields -- now a key part of the "Gang of Eight's" immigration bill.
Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, told TPM that the latest findings are consistent with other polls. A CBS/New York Times survey released earlier this month clocked support for an increase in legal immigration at 25 percent, for a decrease at 31 percent, and for present levels at 35 percent.
So is there a looming backlash against legal immigration on the way? Not necessarily.
For one thing, the momentum is strongly on the pro-immigration side. Through much of the early 2000s, support for an increase in legal immigration was stuck in the high single digits, dragged down by the 9/11 attacks and a divisive policy debate in Congress. The latest CBS/NYT's poll's finding of 25 percent support for an increase in immigration is the highest level its recorded in the 27 years they've asked the question.
This is confirmed by Pew as well, which regularly asks respondents whether they believe "immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care" or whether "immigrants today strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents." A March poll found respondents favored the latter view by a 49-41 margin, a huge shift from just June 2010 when respondents described immigrants as a burden by a 50-39 margin.
It also isn't clear how well developed respondents' views on legal immigration are in the context of the current debate.
"I think they haven't fully engaged with this argument and may never engage with that part of the argument," Dimock said.
Unlike illegal immigration, which is a relatively straightforward and oft-covered debate, Dimock noted that the legal visa process is a confusing mess involving a long list of categories that even close observers often have a hard time tracking. He compared it to financial reform, which generated much less political heat than health care reform in part because the status quo was so abstract and distant from most Americans' daily lives.
"With health care there were clearly a lot of details but people had a good gut sense of where they were on the spectrum of openness to reform," he said. "I think immigration is likely to be a much harder debate for the public to really latch onto and form a super strong opinion, especially the legal side of it."