Most Americans, Including Republicans, Support A Path To Citizenship For Illegal Immigrants

Yet another poll shows that most Americans support a path to citizenship, and that a majority of Republican agree with them.


A new poll from the Pew Center shows that a majority of Americans favor allowing people who are in the United States illegally to stay here legally:

As immigration emerges as a major issue ahead of the 2016 presidential race, a new poll found broad public support for legalizing people who are in the U.S. unlawfully. But other attitudes about immigration are mixed, according to the survey by the independent Pew Research Center.

More than seven out of 10, or 72%, of those polled believe illegal immigrants in the U.S. should be allowed to remain here, if they meet certain conditions. That result is consistent with Pew polls in the past two years that also found strong support for legalization across political party lines.

About 11 million immigrants, overwhelmingly from Latin America, are living in the U.S. illegally.

“You see a continuous majority of the public in recent years saying undocumented immigrants should be able to stay, if certain conditions are met,” said Carroll Doherty,Pew’s director of political research.

He noted that the current level constitutes “a pretty high point.”

Support for legalization had dipped slightly last year, to 68%, as thousands of children illegally crossed the southwest border into the U.S., many of them fleeing gang violence in Central America.

A path to citizenship has been central to the debate on an overhaul of immigration laws, an effort that has stalled in Congress. Lawmakers have disagreed about whether immigrants here illegally should be allowed to apply for green cards, which eventually could be converted into citizenship, or whether they should become part of a new class of legal residents not entitled to citizenship.

Among those polled by Pew, more than four out of 10 said the immigrants should be allowed to apply for citizenship and about a quarter said they should be eligible only for permanent residency. Another 27% said there should be no legalization.

About half of those surveyed believe immigrants strengthen the country, while 41% said they are a burden.

Respondents with only some college education or with a high school education or less were significantly more likely to regard immigrants as being a burden than college graduates. Nearly two-thirds of college graduates said immigrants are a boon to the country.

Younger people tend to regard immigrants more positively. Adults aged 18 to 49 overwhelmingly said they benefit the country. Among those aged 50 to 64, more than half said immigrants are a burden.

In terms of legal immigration, 39% said they support keeping it at the current level. Among those who said the level should change, 31% favor a decrease, 24% favor an increase.

Not surprisingly, there is some significant variation based on party breakdown, but even a majority of Republicans still generally support a path to citizenship:

A majority of Republicans (56%) support a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. At the same time, far more Republicans say immigrants are a burden on the country (63%) than say they strengthen the country (27%).

Among Democrats and independents – majorities of whom also support a path to legal status for people in the U.S. illegally – most say immigrants strengthen the country (62% of Democrats, 57% of independents).

Overall, most Americans reject the idea that giving those who came to the U.S. illegally a path to legal status is in essence “rewarding” them for bad behavior. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say they do not think of a path to legal status in these terms, while 36% say it is “like rewarding them for doing something wrong.”

However, while most Republicans support allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. legally if they meet certain requirements, a majority (58%) views a path to legal status as a reward for doing something wrong. By contrast, just 23% of Democrats and 33% of independents say that giving undocumented immigrants a way to remain in the U.S. legally is akin to rewarding them for doing something wrong.


Among Republicans, 42% think legal immigration into the U.S. should be decreased, compared with 34% who think it should be kept at its present level and just 21% say it should be increased. Fewer Democrats (27%) and independents (28%) think legal immigration should be decreased, with pluralities of both groups saying it should be kept at present levels.


Republicans (58%) are far more likely than Democrats (23%) or independents (33%) to say that allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. is a reward for wrongdoing. Notably, the share of Republicans who think of a path to legal status as a reward for doing something wrong has increased nine points (from 49%) since May 2013. Over the same period, the percentage of Democrats who express this view has declined six points (from 29% to 23%). Independents’ views are largely unchanged.

Republicans are also far more skeptical of legal immigration and far less likely to believe that immigration strengthens the country:

Twice as many Republicans think legal immigration should be decreased as increased (42% vs. 21%) while about one-third (34%) want to keep it about the same. Among Democrats, a similar share wants a decrease in legal immigration (27%) as an increase (24%), while a 43% plurality says it should stay the same. Independents’ views are similar to those of Democrats.


There are wide partisan differences in views of immigrants’ overall impact on the country today. Majorities of Democrats (62%) and independents (57%) say that immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents. By contrast, just 27% of Republicans see immigrants, on balance, as making positive contributions to the country; far more (63%) say that immigrants are a burden because they take jobs, housing and health care.

Republican views on this question have turned more negative over the last year. The share of Republicans who say immigrants strengthen the country has declined from 42% in March 2014.

Broadly, this poll is consistent with surveys that we’ve seen in the past that show that a majority of Americans, and even a majority of Republicans, support a path to citizenship and generally have a positive view of immigration. More recent polling has shown that most Americans support the temporary deportation relief that the President unveiled last November, although they are less supportive of the manner in which he implemented the policy. The obvious conclusion this leads to, of course, is that  many Republican politicians, including many candidates for President, are out of step with the nation as a whole, and even most self-identified Republicans, to the extent they have taken positions on immigration that are far more restrictive than what the public as a whole supports. Many segments of the Republican Party, including people such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and groups such as the Chamber of Commerce and evangelical and religious groups, have warned their fellow Republicans about the political risks the party is taking by continuing to follow an obstructionist strategy toward reform of the nation’s immigration laws and by allowing rhetoric that can only be called anti-immigrant to have such a prominent role in the party. Usually, these warnings are based on the fact that the Latino voters are becoming a larger segment of the country and tending to identify more with the Democratic Party, but this poll shows that it’s an issue that goes far beyond just Latino voters. As with many other issues, the GOP’s position is far out of step with younger voters as well. This is a demographic that will only become more important as time goes on, and on issue after issue the Republican Party is taking positions that seem to be designed to alienate itself from that voting bloc. Over the long term, that is not a smart political strategy.

At the same that this poll reinforces all of the warnings to the GOP that we’ve been hearing for several years, though, it also seems to make it clear why it won’t be easy for Republicans to change positions on immigration in the short term. Notwithstanding the fact that a majority of Republicans support immigration reform and have positive views of immigration and immigrants generally, there is still a sizable minority in the party that holds the opposite view. This minority tends to be more active in the party, and more likely to participate in primary elections, so that candidates must still find a way to pander to them if they’re going to move forward. This is especially true in the south, in smaller states like Iowa, and in Congressional elections. As long as that’s the case, the calls for the GOP to move forward on immigration reform are likely to fall on deaf ears.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Borders and Immigration, Congress, Public Opinion Polls, US Politics, , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. gVOR08 says:

    Isn’t it amazing how liberal the American public is?

    Claims to the contrary rely on self-identification of liberal/conservative, which seems to confuse people.

    However, despite democracy, it’s well documented that the policy preferences of the 1% prevail.

  2. DrDaveT says:

    Isn’t it amazing how liberal the American public is?

    Pretty much, yeah. The one jarring note for me was that 40% of Republicans and a quarter of Democrats and independents think that legal immigration needs to be reduced. That’s way too much just plain xenophobia; an unhealthy aspect of the national psyche.

  3. aFloridian says:

    There’s really no other way to solve this problem. Outside of adopting the tactics of Stalin for mass deportation, the bulk of these people are here to stay. So we need to bring them into the “system” for everyone’s benefit, including ensuring they are paying their due. Anything else, i.e. sending them all home, is un-American.

    I do think this has to be in conjunction with more rigorous future efforts to deter illegal immigration. The desire to come here is never going to go away (at least until we ourselves fall apart) and we’ve got to stem the tide at some point.

    Similarly, and I realize this sounds jingoistic and hateful, but I want to see us be very careful, and very selective in allowing Middle Eastern war refugees to come here. Europe should be doing the same, and countries like Germany that have taken so many immigrants will likely regret it in the future. Accepting a huge influx of Muslims into our population is just a mistake. Yes, we are a multicultural society, but at the end of the day it is in our interest that the American population continues to grow as a Western civilization, which for me also includes cultural Christianity (not necessarily religious dogma, but traditional European-Christian values).

    That’s a big difference between Central and South American immigrants who would be the primary beneficiaries of a path to citizenship and what would happen if we cave to pressure and bring over thousands of Syrian, Eritrean, or Somali Muslims. At the end of the day, Mexicans, Guatemalans, or whomever else from the Americas shares the same basics tenets of civilization we do. We can assimilate them in the ways that matter, including, eventually, even use of English. If we bring too many Muslim refugees over here it is just a matter of time before they form a united bloc against other Americans or, at best, before their youth become a major pool for homegrown radicalized Muslim terrorism, as we already see the current communities in places like Minneapolis and Dearborn are at risk of. Our cultures are just not compatible unless a secularized, sanitized form of Islam somehow takes hold – closer to what we see from some Turks and Central Asians.

  4. Mr. Prosser says:

    @DrDaveT: I’m wondering if the opposition to legal immigration may be a perception that natural born citizens can’t compete with well educated immigrants, particularly in STEM.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    it won’t be easy for Republicans to change positions on immigration in the short term

    Just another indication that the ignorant bigoted base that the Republican party has nurtured for decades will doom them.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    So the American people are with us on income inequality, gay rights, abortion, Iran, and immigration.

    What exactly are the Republicans running on again?

  7. gVOR08 says:

    @Ron Beasley: What would you have the Republicans do? They can’t run on policy.

  8. DrDaveT says:


    What would you have the Republicans do? They can’t run on policy.

    Sure they can — but has to be on the basis of means, not ends. That can even be a reasoned difference of opinion about what will work best — it doesn’t have to be the moral equivalent of “all deliberate speed” or “trickle down economics” or “1000 points of light”.

    What Republicans can’t continue to do (Krishna willing) is run on policy goals that most Americans are coming to reject — wealth protection, marriage discrimination, xenophobia, military interventionism, health privatization, etc.

    With any luck, we’ll have a couple of really lopsided election cycles while the GOP founders on that particular rock.

  9. gVOR08 says:

    For the sake of brevity, I left out the option of lying, which is pretty much a given for GOPs anyway.

    but has to be on the basis of means, not ends.

    Which comes naturally since conservatives seem to view everything as a question of morality, ignoring complex causation. And they believe their own bull spit. Voter ID is protecting the sanctity of the vote, taxes are theft, rich people deserve to be rich since they did build that, protect our borders, defense of marriage, every sperm is precious, god gave us dominion over all that coal, and on and on. For conservatives nothing is about what it’s about, and it’s usually about some moral judgement.

  10. This kind of thing simply underscores (to me, at least) the degree to which our electoral system does not produce a legislature that actually represents the views of the public. As well as the degree to which the electoral college skews those preferences as well.

  11. Modulo Myself says:


    The people who run the GOP are doing fine. They have a pretty nice situation. Millions of dollars flows through their hands. They don’t have to worry about policy. The people who vote for them are too dysfunctional to care about results or reality. The bad thing that happens–losing the presidency to a black man/woman you despise–is just another fund-raising mechanism.

  12. Scott F. says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Our electoral system AND campaign finance regime do not produce a legislature that actually represents the views of the public.

  13. @Scott F.: I take the point,. However, a better electoral system could help mitigate some of the more pernicious elements of the campaign finance system.

    Our electoral system is massively problematic if we actually want a representative (and responsive) legislature.

  14. stonetools says:


    I think they are going to go with what brought them here-lying, appeals to bigotry, and denialism. So far it’s brought them Congress, a Supreme Court majority, and the majority of governorships and state legislatures. Frankly, why should they change, if Americans continue to reward them with electoral success?
    Obama and the Democrats missed a huge opportunity in 2008 when they didn’t grind it in that the reason for the mess at home and abroad was that the conservative economic and foreign policy was dead wrong on all counts. Instead Obama wanted to “turn the page” on all that- leaving the way for conservatives to rewrite their profound policy failures out of history, and to focus on the fact that there was a black man in the White House, that his policies were by definition wrong, and that the only way to stop him was to elect Republicans.

  15. gVOR08 says:

    @stonetools: I think the biggest problem was simply timing. FDR got the Depression after Hoover had it for two years. It was obvious which party owned it. And whether from luck or the 100 days, things began to improve quickly. Things started to improve almost immediately on Obama’s inauguration also, but people hadn’t had time to internalize that it was W’s recession. In the limited memory of the electorate the recession is associated with Obama. How else would W get to 52% approval?

  16. superdestroyer says:

    The polls never ask the correct questions. The real question is whether people are willing to put their wallet where their political opinions are and agree to pay more taxes in order to put people on the pathway to citizenship. Unless p[people are willing to pay more taxes, endure more sprawl, and send their children to schools where less money is spent o academic education, then people are not really that supportive of a second round of amnesty for illegal immigration.

    Of course, the other question is whether people want to put 11 million future automatic Democratic Party voters on the path to citizenship is it means that the U.S. becomes a one party state faster than the current trend.

  17. David M says:


    You do realize that they are already here, and none of that makes sense, don’t you?

  18. humanoid.panda says:


    However, despite democracy, it’s well documented that the policy preferences of the 1% prevail.

    Not on this issue though: pretty sure that 95% of the top 1% are pro-immigration reform.

    [Same goes for gun issues, IMO).

    As much we dislike the crazy right wing, the nativists and the gun nuts, its important to remember that much of their power derives from grassroots democracy: they organize, and vote, and badger politicians to death.

  19. gVOR08 says:

    I agree. I’m unsure on immigration, there would be I suspect a low level of support amongst the 1% for keeping illegals illegal, and therefore powerless. Guns, and abortion, I don’t think they much care. They live in nice, safe neighborhoods and can send their daughters to Paris for an abortion and shopping spree. Issues they’re happy to throw as a bone to the Tea Party.

  20. Rob Prather says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I’ve reached the same conclusion. Heck, I even switched on the national popular vote and favor it.

    I suspect things will get worse before they getter based on the “one person, one vote” case in front of SCOTUS next term.

    Incidentally, Steven, what would you recommend that we can actually accomplish within our constitution? We’re stuck with the Senate forever.

  21. superdestroyer says:

    @David M:

    First, of all, during the illegal immigration amnesty of the 1980’s, there were promises for more border security and that there would not be another amnesty. Now in the 2010’s the second amnesty is going to be for more than 11 million and there is no promose that there will not be another amnesty. That means the third amnesty will be more than 30 million illegal immigrants. Granting amnesty and putting illegal aliens on a path to citizenship is an invitation for even more illegal immigration in the future. The only plan that anyone seems to have to limit illegal immigration is to lower the quality of life in the U.S. so that there is no economic draw for illegal to come to the U.S.

  22. David M says:


    So more people immigrate here then. I’m failing to see the downside.

  23. superdestroyer says:

    @David M:

    But what are the aspects of those future immigrants. They will be poorer than the average American. They will have higher fertility. They will have a lower level of educational obtainment. Most of them will not be fluent in English. That means more money spent on welfare, on special education, and on sprawl.

    Look at the state with the highest percentage of illegal aliens: California. High taxes, public schools that fail to educate middle class Americans, Higher than average unemployment rate. And some of the worst traffic in the U.S.

    Remember, California and especially Southern California have stopped being the place where middle class Americans (and especially white Americans) move. And part of that is due to the presence of so many illegal aliens.

  24. superdestroyer says:

    @Rob Prather:

    So what is the logic of adding millions of automatic Democratic Party voters and then going to electing the president by popular vote. Do you really want to make the general election nothing more than a rubber stamp of what the Democrats decide in a couple of primaries?

  25. @superdestroyer:

    there were promises for more border security

    And you got it. That increased security led to a less porous border and therefore instead of undocumented immigrants coming and going once they got here they stayed, contributing to the 11-12 million who are here now.

    Your own policy preferences created your own worse nightmare.

    (I point this out less for you than for others paying attention to the conversation).

  26. David M says:


    I’m not entirely sure that “because it makes racists sad” is actually a reason oppose immigration.

  27. @Rob Prather:

    what would you recommend that we can actually accomplish within our constitution?

    On a theoretical level there is a lot that could be done (more than I will address here), although the practical politics makes all them unlikely-to-impossible.

    All I think that can be done at the moment is to educate the population as to why the system doesn’t actually do what they think it does (i.e., reflect the will of the governed) and to point out there are tried and true alternatives to the way we do things. (It is an uphill battle, if not a fool’s errand, but so it goes).

  28. Rob Prather says:

    @superdestroyer: you keep saying we’re headed for a one-party state, so let’s get after it. 🙂

    First, in the Rubio bill it would take 13 years before they could apply for citizenship. I don’t see the problem. Second, the Republican Party will just have to broaden itself and not be controlled by nativists. Is that so hard?

  29. Tony W says:


    So what is the logic of adding millions of automatic Democratic Party voters

    I love how you assume that if poor people are simply allowed the right to vote, they will vote for Democrats. I mean liberals understand that (duh), but conservatives tend to pretend voter ID, poll taxes, Selma-style political trivia intelligence tests and the like are simply means to protect the institution. I appreciate your honesty in admitting that conservatives have no chance running on their ideas – they simply have to rig the game.

  30. Paul Hooson says:

    We are a nation of immigrants, where open arms to the immigrants of the world is only fair and just. My own Irish and Jewish ancestors came to this country because of terrible conditions in the countries they lived in.

  31. Eric Florack says:

    Well, now comes the part those pushing amnesty don’t want to discuss what that plan is.

    Oh… and by the way… we HAD a plan…. trouble was, it got ignored.

    I love how you assume that if poor people are simply allowed the right to vote, they will vote for Democrats.

    And that’s why it got ignored.

    Let’s face it, if the left thought for a second that they’d be Republican, much less, conservative, the border would be sealed in a heartbeat, Obama would be declaring the invasion from Mexico to be the biggest threat the nation has ever faced…(and not the global warming myth)

  32. al-Ameda says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Let’s face it, if the left thought for a second that they’d be Republican, much less, conservative, the border would be sealed in a heartbeat, Obama would be declaring the invasion from Mexico to be the biggest threat the nation has ever faced…(and not the global warming myth)

    Let’s face it – Republicans killed the Rubio proposal.

    posted by Rob Prather:
    “First, in the Rubio bill it would take 13 years before they could apply for citizenship. I don’t see the problem. Second, the Republican Party will just have to broaden itself and not be controlled by nativists. Is that so hard?”

    — to me it was a punitive proposal, and it a type of indentured servitude.

  33. Personally, I do not care one whit how they will vote (and still maintain that are inroads for the GOP in what is largely a naturally conservative constituency). My views on this topic are vested not in some petty assumption about party politics, but about what the right thing to do is for millions of human beings.

  34. MBunge says:

    @DrDaveT: That’s way too much just plain xenophobia

    There’s nothing inherently xenophobic about wanting legal immigration levels at A instead of Ax5. While xenophobia might be at work it could also be simple disgust with the broken immigration system in the country overall.


  35. superdestroyer says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It is amazing that a demographic group where more than 50% of children are born to unwed mothers and more than 50% of marriages end in divorce is always protrayed as conservative and pro-family.

    Government employees who can pass on their increased costs to the taxpayers may not care about the political and economic impacts of the voting habits of Latino immigrants. What is amazing is how many progressives seem content with the idea of politics in the U.S. being a one party state and politics being the rich and the poor against the middle class.

  36. Rob Prather says:

    @James P:

    Do you think the 12th man on the Cleveland bench and LeBron should make the same salary?

    No one is arguing for equal incomes, just less inequality. You should look at an income distribution chart and see how much goes to the top .01%. A good bit (maybe most) is earned on nonproductive endeavors like financial speculation that doesn’t add much, if anything, to economic growth.

  37. Barry says:

    @michael reynolds: “What exactly are the Republicans running on again?”

    Fear, hatred and sadism.

  38. DrDaveT says:


    Fear, hatred and sadism.

    Don’t forget greed — and the wine list, please…