Sympathy for young illegal immigrants, suspicion for other immigrants

A new poll shows that Americans are pretty sympathetic when it comes to the influx of young illegal immigrants from Central America.

More than two-thirds (69 percent) say these children should be treated with the protections of refugees rather than as illegal immigrants; 56 percent say their families are doing what they can to protect their children rather than taking advantage of Americans; and 70 percent say the children should be offered shelter and support, according to the Public Religion Research Institute poll. Just 26 percent of Americans say the children should be deported immediately.

But even as Americans view these illegal immigrant children in this positive light, something else has happened: Their overall views of immigrants have taken a turn for the worse.

I wrote last month about how perceptions of immigrants in the United States -- both legal and illegal -- had been gradually improving for decades. And that has certainly been the case.

Here's how that looked, from New York Times polling:

Immigration2

And from NBC/Wall Street Journal polling:

Immigration1

Well, as the situation on the border has deteriorated, so have Americans' views of immigrants.

According to the PRRI poll, fewer than half of Americans (49 percent) now say immigrants "strengthen" the United States with their "hard work and talents." Forty-two percent now say they are a "burden" because they are a drain on jobs, housing and health care.

Less than three months ago, that mere seven-points split was as much as 32 points.

The double-digit drop in the percentage of Americans who view immigrants writ large as strengthening the United States is the biggest we've seen in recent years.

The question is whether this is part of a new normal or merely a momentary reaction to what has become a pretty serious situation on the border. It's quite possible it's the latter, given Americans are more likely to view immigrants today in the context of what's happening on the border, rather than in the context of legal immigration. That could explain the recent shift.

But if it's the former and it sticks, that spells bad things for the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform going forward.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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