WASHINGTON - As the immigration debate heads into a crucial period on Capitol Hill, Americans have been convinced.
By both sides.
In a new USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll, three of four people agree with big arguments made by proponents of legislation that would allow millions of undocumented workers to stay in the United States legally: that deporting them isn't realistic, that granting them legal status would boost the U.S. economy, that most are hardworking and deserve an opportunity to stay.
At the same time, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed also agree with big arguments made by opponents: that granting undocumented workers legal status would drain government services and that doing so would encourage more foreigners to come to the U.S. illegally.
Just about everybody - more than eight in 10 Americans - endorse views on both sides of the argument. That could make the politics harder when it comes to striking a final deal this year, a time widely seen as the best chance in a generation to overhaul the nation's immigration system.
"I'm a Democrat, and I understand the importance of it, especially to the children of immigrants," Linda Kosinski, 56, a small-business owner from Andover, Mass., said in a follow-up interview after being polled. "But I'm one of those 'the rules are the rules' people. Fundamentally I guess I worry about - if we keep doing this, why would anybody go through the means of becoming a citizen legally?"
"Believe it or not, I'm a registered Republican, but I put it to you this way: People who have been here for years and years, I say legalize them," says Aaron Movtady, 44, a loan officer for a mortgage bank from Bayside, Queens. "Lot of them, they're guys just trying to make an honest living, trying to live the American dream."
The findings illustrate "the level of internal conflict people feel over this policy realm," says Michael Dimmock, director of the Pew Research Center. "Both arguments have been made pretty persuasively at this point."
The poll of 1,512 adults, taken June 12-16 by land line and cellphone, has a margin of error of +/-2.9 percentage points.
The crosscurrents in public opinion could complicate the make-or-break period just ahead in Congress.
In some ways, it could help negotiations to reach a compromise. "When people see both sides of an argument, then the proponents of each side understand the other side is going to be taken into consideration," offers Haley Barbour, a former Mississippi governor and Republican national chairman.
But in other ways, it's likely to make it harder. For one thing, it will be difficult to satisfy the sometimes-conflicting priorities that most Americans now endorse, from the demand to tighten the borders (backed by 77%) to the desire to provide legal standing for undocumented immigrants (backed by 71%). For another, negotiators could be emboldened to draw a harder line against giving ground because both sides can argue that Americans are behind them.
In the past few days, there has been progress toward a deal in the Senate but warning signs of the course ahead in the House.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., says he wants the Senate to vote on an immigration overhaul drafted by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" before the Fourth of July recess. An agreement reached Thursday to bolster the border-security provisions in the measure has helped win over additional GOP senators. But House Speaker John Boehner last week declared that the legislation brought to the floor there will have to be backed by a "majority of the majority" - that is, by a majority of Republican representatives.
That guarantees the House version, assuming one passes, will be significantly more conservative than the Senate bill. Boehner has signaled it won't include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers, even though Democrats describe that as essential, and it's likely to include provisions on border security that the other side already has ruled out as unacceptable. The Senate amendment hasn't quelled his concerns.
"Immigration reform must - I mean must - be grounded in real border security," Boehner told reporters Thursday. "That's what the American people believe."
THE MOST DIVISIVE QUESTION
The most divisive issue in the immigration debate comes down to a question of timing: Half of those surveyed, 49%, say undocumented immigrants should be able to apply for legal status while border-security improvements are being made. Close to half, 43%, say the move to legal status should be delayed until after stricter border security is in place.
"The most important thing is that our citizens along the border between Mexico and the U.S. are in danger," says James Purvis, 28, of Rochester, N.Y., who works in information security and was called in the poll. "My brother lives in Arizona, and it's very much part of his life that he has to worry about being injured or harassed by people at the border."
The issue divides each party into three camps, albeit in different ways.
Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, nearly four in 10 say immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally shouldn't be able to remain in the country at all. The remaining Republicans are divided between those who say the immigrants shouldn't be allowed to apply for legal status until borders are under better control and those who say they should be allowed to do so while border security is being improved.
Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, four in 10 say undocumented workers should be able to apply for legal status while border security is being tightened. The remaining Democrats are divided between those who says the legalization process shouldn't begin until the borders have been made more secure and those who say border security shouldn't even be part of the new immigration law.
"They talk so much about it, but they need to do something," says Ramona McEwen, 52, a home health aide from Muskegon, Mich. "It's time. The ones that are already here, already established their families, their jobs, they should be able to stay here instead of go back. I think that's only fair."
Precisely half of those surveyed say it is extremely or very important to them that the president and Congress enact significant immigration legislation this year. Another one in three say it is "somewhat" important to them. Just two in 10 say it isn't important.
The level of interest in and support for a bill is significantly higher than it was almost precisely six years ago, in June 2007, the last time the Senate was headed to a vote on a major immigration bill. At that time, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll found that 58% of those surveyed didn't know enough about the measure to have an opinion. Those who did have a view opposed it by nearly 3-1, and opponents were much more likely to feel strongly about it than supporters.
Then, the bill failed in the Senate.
Now, there's modest confidence now that Congress will pass a bill that President Obama will sign. Fourteen percent of those surveyed by the Pew Research Center say it's very likely legislation will be signed this year; 39% call it somewhat likely. Forty-four percent say it's not likely to happen.
"I do want them to pass the bill, but I have reservations about whether they will," says Michael Scruggs, 49, a financial analyst who lives near Phoenix. "Immigration is like drug enforcement, OK? Like the war on drugs and the war on terror. It's all sound bites."
'GETTING THE MESSAGE'
Many of the policy issues today are the same as those debated the last time around, but there has been at least one big change -and that has given an immigration bill brighter prospects than it had six years ago.
"What is very different is the focus on Latino voters that came out of the 2012 election," says Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington, Seattle, who studies Latino voting behavior. "The 2012 election showed the number of Latino voters continuing to increase and in key states. ... Finally the Republican Party is getting the message: This is a monumental issue for Latino voters, and it's one in which they will evaluate the Republican Party."
In 2012, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney received just 27% of the Latino vote, according to surveys of voters as they left polling places.
"The Republican Party really in this last election didn't do anything for the Latino vote, and when they tried to do some ad campaigns it became a laughingstock," recalls Stephanie Stenner, 23, a coffee shop barista from Santa Cruz, Calif., who is Hispanic. "A lot of Latinos are very conservative, and the Republican Party could have such a huge opening for what they stand for with Latinos. But this immigration issue is really hurting them."
Those who aren't Latino are skeptical that passing an immigration bill will do the GOP much good politically. About two-thirds of non-Hispanics say it won't make much difference or might even hurt Republicans.
Among Hispanics, however, 55% say passing an immigration bill would help Republicans in national elections. Seven of 10 Latinos say it's extremely or very important to them that immigration legislation pass this year. Nine of 10 say there should be a way for undocumented immigrants to stay in the United States legally, if certain requirements are met.
So do seven in 10 Americans overall. Asked about what those requirements might be:
• 76% say they should be required to speak and understand English before applying for legal status.
• 56% say they should have to pay fines.
• 55% say there should be a 10-year waiting period before they could become permanent residents.
"The U.S. needs more people, and we need them to be legal so they can pay taxes," says Alfredo Mesa Moreno, 29, a field scientist in Tampa who legally immigrated from Spain and hopes to become a U.S. citizen next year. "But with this law - it can be like a call for immigrants to come here illegally," he worries, then adds: "I guess it's complicated."