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Despite Concerns About Border, Poll Finds Support For More Pathways To Citizenship

Migrants make their way toward a bus after being apprehended near the border between Mexico and the United States in Del Rio, Texas, on Sunday.
Migrants make their way toward a bus after being apprehended near the border between Mexico and the United States in Del Rio, Texas, on Sunday.

Across the political spectrum, Americans are worried about the rising number of migrants apprehended after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll.

But whatever their misgivings about the situation at the border, majorities of poll respondents favor creating a legal pathway to citizenship for certain groups of immigrants already living in the country.

"Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about the situation at the border and the number of migrants coming in, but at the same time, many are still in favor of reforming the system," said Mallory Newall, a research director at Ipsos.

"We see support for allowing law-abiding migrants to become citizens under specific circumstances," Newall said, "and also reforms to ensure better treatment of those at the border, particularly children."

Roughly 4 out of 5 Americans, regardless of partisan affiliation, identified the situation at the southern border as a "problem," though Republicans were more likely than Democrats to call it a "major problem."

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Immigration authorities apprehended more than 178,000 migrants at the border in April, the highest monthly total in two decades. More than 35,000 unaccompanied migrant children were taken into custody at the border in March and April.

"It's a disaster," said Paulette Buckner of Melstone, Mont., an independent who leans Republican and describes herself as a strong supporter of former President Donald Trump.

"We're the only country in the world that has no borders right now," said Buckner, who participated in the poll. When asked to grade the Biden administration's handling of the situation so far, she replied: "Is there anything worse than an F?"

President Biden has publicly discouraged Central American migrants from making the dangerous trip north to the border, and his administration is still quickly expelling the majority of migrants under a Trump-era public health order that has been in place since the beginning of the pandemic.

But unaccompanied migrant children are being allowed into the U.S. to seek asylum along with a growing number of migrant families and vulnerable adults.

The NPR/Ipsos poll conducted earlier this month found that two-thirds of respondents are concerned about ensuring proper care for unaccompanied migrant children detained at the border.

The Biden administration has been scrambling to get thousands of migrant teenagers and children out of crowded Border Patrol facilities, and into newly opened emergency shelters overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services.

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In Washington, Biden's immigration agenda has been complicated by the situation at the border with Republicans on Capitol Hill saying the administration needs to do more to stem the flow of migrants before overhauling the immigration system.

The president introduced legislation in January that would create a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. if they meet certain qualifications.

The NPR/Ipsos poll found that such a sweeping proposal isn't backed by a majority of all Americans — just Democrats.

"They should definitely get their papers for being here as long as they have," said Jeffrey Charles, a registered Democrat from Newark, N.J., whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti.

"Immigrants are very hardworking," Charles said. "They come here with the energy and the mindset to work. So I think America takes advantage of that because they know that these people are hard workers and they need them."

The poll did find bipartisan support for creating a legal pathway for certain categories of immigrants — from farmworkers and other essential workers, to immigrants who fled from countries suffering from war or natural disasters, and the so-called DREAMers who were brought to the country illegally as children.

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"When you just ask people overall if they're in favor of giving all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. a path to citizenship, views are pretty split," said Newall.

"But when you look at specific groups ... most Americans can agree that if they meet the qualifications, if they go about it legally, then there should be a path for them," she said.

Biden has signaled that he's willing to scale back his immigration proposal.

"Look, if you don't like my plan, let's at least pass what we all agree on," Biden said in his address to Congress last month.

But so far, some Republican lawmakers aren't interested in that offer. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who has worked on comprehensive immigration bills in the past, said the chances of passing major legislation now are slim.

"I don't think they're going to have a snowball's chance in hell of doing that given the massive influx at the border," Graham told Roll Call earlier this month. "There'll be no immigration reform until you get control of the border."

The poll also found broad support for better training and oversight of agents and officers at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

And more than half of respondents support ending the system of for-profit immigrant detention centers that are overseen by ICE.

In addition, there's broad bipartisan support for temporary travel restrictions to combat the spread of the coronavirus. More than 3 in 4 respondents say they support temporarily banning travel from countries with severe outbreaks, such as India.

But support for other temporary restrictions on immigration during the pandemic, such as closing the U.S. border to asylum-seekers and refugees, has fallen since a similar poll last year.

"COVID is still in the back of Americans' minds. It's just no longer kind of grabbing all of our focus," Newall said. "There's now room to be concerned about things like immigration or health care or government spending."

Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to say that immigration is one of their top concerns. More than one-third of Republicans listed immigration as one of the "most worrying" issues facing the country — more than any other single issue, including terrorism or taxes. By contrast, only 9% of Democrats cited immigration as a top concern.

Moreover, Trump's hard-line immigration policies remain popular with Republicans. The poll found more than three-quarters favor a border wall, and a majority support a travel ban on visitors and immigrants from certain Muslim-majority countries. Both of those policies have been repudiated by Biden.

The poll also suggests that underlying attitudes about immigrants have shifted.

For several years, Ipsos has asked respondents whether they agree that "immigrants are an important part of our American identity." In 2020, more than 71% of all respondents agreed. This year, that percentage has fallen to 62%. Among Republicans, the drop was even steeper: 61% agreed last year, compared with 48% this year.

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