One hundred immigrants become American citizens during a naturalization ceremony at Liberty State Park on September 17, 2015 in Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

In a massive survey for the American Values Atlas (AVA),the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), conducted over 42,000 phone interviews over a 9-month period on attitudes about immigrants and immigration reform. Its findings provide some perspective at a time when the top two Republican presidential contenders are playing to anti-immigration reform sentiment in the GOP.

The survey found, “Americans overall are more likely to say that newcomers from other countries strengthen American society (50%) than they are to believe that they represent a threat to American customs and values (34%).”

However, opinion varies dramatically between Republicans and Democrats, and even more so by age, with younger Americans holding overwhelmingly positive views about immigrants: “More than two-thirds (68%) of young adults (age 18 to 29) say that immigrants coming to the U.S. strengthen the country, while fewer than one in five (19%) say that immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values. In contrast, only 36% of seniors (age 65 and older) believe that newcomers strengthen American society, while close to half (44%) of seniors believe that immigrants coming to the U.S. are a threat. Notably, 12% of seniors offer no opinion on this issue.” Among independents, 52 percent think immigrants are a positive while 33 percent think they threaten American customs and values.

As for Republicans:

A majority (53%) of Republicans say that immigrants constitute a threat to traditional American customs and values; roughly one-third (32%) say they strengthen American society. In contrast, a majority of independents (52%) and Democrats (63%) say that newcomers from other countries strengthen American society. However, there are considerable ideological divisions among both Republicans and Democrats. Nearly six in ten (58%) conservative Republicans believe that newcomers present a threat to traditional customs, while moderate and liberal Republicans are divided. Close to half (45%) of moderate Republicans say immigrants are a threat, compared to 40% who say they offer a positive contribution to American society. . . .

There are also substantial generational divisions among Republicans. A slim majority (51%) of young Republicans (age 18 to 29) say that immigrants strengthen American society, compared to 36% who say they threaten American society. In contrast, Republicans over the age of 30 are more likely to believe immigrants pose a threat to American culture and way of life. Among seniors (age 65 and older), only 22% believe that immigrants strengthen American society, compared to 61% who say they are a threat.

Given these data, a GOP presidential candidate searching for conservative support might think it effective to sound harshly anti-immigrant, even though that position is at odds with the larger electorate. However, when it comes to what to do about illegal immigrants the results are surprising:

More than six in ten (62%) Americans say immigrants who are currently living here illegally should be allowed a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, while 15% say these immigrants should be allowed to become permanent legal residents but not citizens, and about one in five (19%) say illegal immigrants should be identified and deported.

And while Democrats (72%) are far more likely to support providing illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship, a majority (52%) of Republicans do as well. Among independents, 62% favor a path to citizenship.

Once again, older and more conservative Republicans are less enthusiastic about a path to citizenship, but nevertheless support for a path to citizenship among the toughest anti-immigration reform groups within the GOP does not drop below 49 percent for conservatives and 47 percent of seniors. Likewise, support for deportation peaks at 34 percent with conservatives.

Trump and to a large extent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) have played to aggrieved Americans distrustful of government, including those most wary of immigrants. In a divided, minority party that pays dividends. But as a theme for unifying the party, and more so as a method of winning the White House in November, a heavy anti-immigrant message is unlikely to work. Even within the GOP support for a pathway to citizenship runs high. There is, I suppose, a term for all those “amnesty” proponents: A big electoral majority.