By Jon Cohen and Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 17, 2010; A02
Most Americans support the new, controversial Arizona law that gives police there the power to check the residency status of suspected illegal immigrants. But most also still back a program giving those here illegally the right to earn legal documentation, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Immigration has been rising in prominence as an issue and has the potential to roil party unity on both sides as Democrats and Republicans push for the upper hand in the midterm elections. Liberal Democrats are broadly against the Arizona law; moderate and conservative Democrats are more evenly split on the issue. Most staunch Republicans oppose a "path to citizenship," while a majority of other Republicans favor such a plan. At the Texas Republican convention last week, the party splintered over the issue, with moderates proposing a legalization plan through military service, and the party ultimately adding an Arizona-like measure to its plank.
"I'm for it [the Arizona law] because it's giving a sense of accountability and it's making it easier to recognize who's who," said Terrance Hawkins, 36, a comedian who lives in Oxon Hill and is a Democrat. Illegal immigrants, he said in a follow-up interview, "just come and they stay, and they end up getting health-care coverage."
But Nancy Thomas, 58, a Democrat who is a bodywork therapist in Annapolis, criticized the law, which she worried could result in racial profiling. "It leans too much on somebody's appearance, and it doesn't really depend on an action somebody does," she said.
A further challenge for Democrats is that public disapproval over how President Obama is dealing with immigration has edged higher, with 51 percent of all respondents -- and 56 percent of political independents -- giving him negative ratings on the issue.
One unifying immigration concern is the widespread perception that the federal government is not doing enough to keep illegal immigrants from coming into the country. Overall, 75 percent of those polled fault border enforcement, and 83 percent support using National Guard troops to patrol the U.S.-Mexico line.
Views about the government's performance on the border relate directly to assessments of the Arizona law: 67 percent of those who see inadequate federal action on the border favor the new law, compared with 31 percent of those who see sufficient enforcement along the 1,954-mile frontier. In all, 58 percent of Americans say they are supportive of the new law.
Several respondents said the scarcity of jobs was a factor in their support of the law.
"They're affecting all the tool-bag trades," said Robert Sawyer, 42, an electrician in Poquoson, Va., who is a Republican. Sawyer strongly supports the Arizona law, he said, in part because he thinks illegal immigrants are contributing to the unemployment woes some of his friends are suffering. "They're good workers and all," he said of illegal immigrants, "but they're taking all the jobs that Americans do."
A slim majority who see a lack of effort on the border say states should be allowed to make and enforce their own immigration laws, while other respondents prefer continued federal control by a ratio greater than 2 to 1. But the main divide on this question is ideological, with 83 percent of liberal Democrats and 34 percent of conservative Republicans preferring exclusive federal jurisdiction.
There is a steep racial divide on the Arizona question: 68 percent of whites back the law, compared with 31 percent of non-whites. White Democrats are about evenly divided on the bill (51 percent in favor; 47 percent opposed), while non-white Democrats are broadly opposed (24 percent support, and 73 percent oppose).
At the same time that a majority of Americans back the Arizona law, most say they support a program allowing illegal immigrants already in the United States the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet certain requirements. In the new poll, 57 percent support the option, close to the level in spring 2009 at the 100-day mark of Obama's presidency.
"I think we should at least give them a chance to pay their dues; don't spit them out," said Tillie Braswell, 77, a retiree in Bristol, Va. ,who opposes the Arizona law and supports a path to citizenship for people here illegally. "We should treat them with respect, the way I'd want to be treated if I were in their country."
But Braswell, a Democrat, also thought border patrols should be beefed up, perhaps by the National Guard. "Post them up and down, but don't let them be shooting them," she said.
The poll was conducted June 3-6 among a random sample of 1,004 adults contacted by conventional and cellular telephone. The results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.