In a dramatic reversal, California voters now see undocumented workers as a positive economic force in the state — and they overwhelmingly favor allowing a path to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants in the country.
Only 19% of California voters in a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll said those in the country illegally should be required to leave the United States. About two-thirds of survey respondents said illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay with eventual citizenship rights. An additional 10% said they should be permitted to remain in this country to work but should not be allowed to apply for citizenship.
At a time when the push for immigration reform has gained momentum in Washington, more than two-thirds of California voters say the current immigration system isn't working and nearly three-quarters favor President Obama's plan to change it, the poll found.
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Across different ages and ethnic groups, voters were largely supportive of the measures outlined by Obama and a bipartisan group of senators, including enhancing border security, requiring employers to verify the legal status of their employees and permitting certain undocumented workers to become citizens as long as they pay taxes and fines and are processed behind those who come legally.
Though Obama's association with the proposal made it less palatable to some Republicans, a slender majority of GOP voters in the state said they backed the president's plan — a finding that, along with the drubbing their party took from Latino voters last fall, helps to illustrate why Republicans have grown more comfortable aligning themselves with citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"There's really not much of a debate in California about immigration anymore, and there may not even be a national debate," said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm that conducted the poll with the Republican firm American Viewpoint. "It's no longer a partisan or racial issue for Californians."
The state's voters have long held more moderate views on immigration than voters in other parts of the country, in part because of California's burgeoning Latino population. But the poll results illustrated that, even here, views about illegal immigrants have changed notably.
In 2010, when pollsters asked about the effect of illegal immigrants on the California economy, 48% of respondents said their effect was negative and 40% said it was positive. In the latest survey, only 36% said their impact was negative, and 53% said it was positive — a "huge shift," Lieberman said, that spanned all age groups and could not be explained simply by the surging population of Latinos in the state.
Part of what appears to be driving that change are the personal connections that many California voters have formed with illegal immigrants. Latinos were more likely than whites to know one — a majority of Latinos described that person as either a friend or family member — and among all voters who knew any, only 8% said illegal immigrants should be forced to leave the country.
"That tells me that immigration reform is really about la familia, especially for Hispanics, but even white voters can kind of understand that," said Dave Kanevsky, the research director at American Viewpoint.
And that familiarity has affected views across political lines. Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, noted that California Republicans live in a much more multicultural society than party members elsewhere, "so the lives they live every day and the people they see are probably the main reason that their feelings are different than their national counterparts'."
That has been the case for 33-year-old Fresno Republican Chris Leake, who said the friendships he developed with undocumented workers in the U.S. and while doing volunteer work in Mexico have made him more inclined to support a path to citizenship.
"I understand why they come up here illegally — I don't agree with it, per se, but I understand why," said Leake, who works in Internet marketing. For many workers, he said, "it was extremely expensive and they ran great personal risk to do it, but they did it because they felt like they needed the income."
Leake, along with 73% of poll respondents, said he would favor the inclusion of a guest worker program in any new immigration package, which he said "would start to solve the problem."
"There's a significant percentage that want nothing more than to come up here, earn money for a time and then go back to Mexico," Leake said. "Instead they stay for years at a time, because it's so hard to get up here in the first place. And that's having devastating effects on their families."