In this Nov. 7, 2014, file photo, people rally for comprehensive immigration reform outside the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Breaking: Americans support a path to citizenship.

About six in 10 support a new pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, according to a new poll from NBC News and Wall Street Journal. And that number jumps to a whopping 74 percent if you qualify that the undocumented immigrants must take steps like paying back taxes.

The very same poll, though, also asked people whether they support legal status -- shy of citizenship -- for illegal immigrants. Support for this, somewhat amazingly, is just 39 percent, with 48 percent opposed.

In other words, huge majorities support a path to citizenship. But on a path to legal status, it's reversed.


If you're confused, you're not the only ones. So are the American people. And with President Obama set to announce his big immigration executive action on Thursday night, his biggest public-perception hurdle is a conflicted and uncertain American public that offers these kinds of contradictory emotions.

While polling has long shown a clear and strong majority of Americans support a path to citizenship, some recent polls have shown far less support for legal status. While the NBC/WSJ poll shows Americans oppose legal status 48-39, a Washington Post-ABC News poll in September showed Americans opposed legalization 50-46. That was little-changed from January, when the WaPo-ABC poll showed an even 49-49 split.

In other words, this isn't really a new phenomenon.

Why the support for citizenship but not legal status? Your guess is as good as ours. Maybe people don't like the idea of two classes of Americans. Maybe they think of citizenship as something that is earned, and legal status as something that is bestowed without cost to the beneficiary.

Whatever the reason, it bears emphasizing that Obama's announcement tonight has much more to do with legal status and nothing to do with citizenship.

Does that mean that Americans don't -- in spirit -- support what Obama is trying to do? Not necessarily. We tend to think there is just a very large mushy middle on the immigration issue that just hasn't given it much thought and thus offers somewhat contradictory answers.

Democrats are banking on the idea that support for a path to citizenship and comprehensive immigration reform more broadly will overcome the hesitance about executive action without Congress. The NBC/WSJ poll suggests that's looking unlikely, with 48 percent opposing Obama's executive action and 38 percent supporting it.

We'll see how it shakes out, but if Americans continue to oppose the executive action, the contradictory numbers above provide a pretty good window into why.