Issue proves tricky for presidential candidates


Public divided on illegal immigrants

National Security

December 07, 2007|By Janet Hook | Janet Hook,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- One-third of Americans surveyed want to deprive illegal immigrants of social services, including public schooling and emergency room health care, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll finds.

Even among Democrats, traditionally a party more welcoming of immigrants, 22 percent of voters surveyed would deny illegal immigrants access to services even as basic as emergency health care and public education.

Still, in a sign of the ambivalence among voters about the emotionally charged issue, a strong bipartisan majority - 60 percent - favors allowing illegal immigrants who have not committed crimes to become citizens if they pay fines, learn English and meet other requirements.

Those crosscurrents create treacherous political waters for major presidential candidates of both parties, many of whom have tended to avoid spotlighting the issue. But all the White House contenders have been forced to confront the issue repeatedly under questioning at campaign events and candidate forums - including Tuesday's radio debate among Democrats, who were asked if citizens should turn in someone they know to be an illegal immigrant. Most said no. But in other settings, several have been talking a tough line on issues such as denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.

Some poll respondents, in follow-up interviews, expressed frustration that the candidates have not been more forthright in addressing immigration-related issues.

"I don't know what the answer is, but I don't think the candidates know what the answer is either," said Lodie Lambright, a retired state employee in Rhode Island.

The survey, conducted under the supervision of Los Angeles Times poll director Susan Pinkus, was based on interviews from Friday through Monday of 1,245 registered voters, including 529 who expect to take part in Democratic primaries or caucuses and 428 who expect to take part in Republican ones.

The margin of error was 4 percentage points for the Democratic sample and 5 percentage points for the GOP group. For the entire group, the margin of error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The poll indicates that illegal immigration is not the most important issue voters have on their mind - but that most people view it as a key concern.

Asked to name their top priority for presidential candidates to address, 15 percent said illegal immigration - the fifth most-mentioned, after such issues as the war in Iraq, the economy and health care. Asked how much of a problem illegal immigration is, 81 percent of voters surveyed said they considered it important - including 27 percent who said it was one of the most pressing problems facing the country.

The poll also makes clear that voters make a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants: Asked if illegal immigrants had made a positive or negative contribution to their community, 36 percent said negative (21 percent said positive, 31 percent said the impact was not discernible).

When the same question was asked about legal immigrants, only 12 percent said their impact was negative (46 percent said positive, 31 percent said no discernible impact).

"I don't mind immigration, but I do think they need to learn the English language and should become an American citizen," said Patricia Buckner, a Florida retiree.

When those who said immigrants had a negative impact were asked precisely how, the reasons most often cited were increased crime (30 percent), loss of American jobs (35 percent) and increased cost of social services (19 percent).

The survey of voters' opinion about social services, which allowed respondents to name up to five services they would allow, showed a disparity: Far more people would allow access to emergency-room care and schooling than other benefits like food stamps and driver's licenses.

Some 46 percent of respondents said that immigrants should be able to get emergency medical treatment, and 40 percent said they should have access to public school.

By contrast, only 22 percent of voters said that illegal immigrants should be able to get limited driver's licenses - a question that has put the Democratic presidential candidates on the spot recently.

Some poll respondents resisting the idea of providing a range of services to illegal immigrants argue that it drains resources from U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who are in need.

"It seems like our money in this country is going out faster than it is coming in, and [the spending is] helping the people who are not U.S. citizens," said Buckner, who describes herself as a liberal Democrat.

Some respondents saw a humanitarian need to provide basic services like emergency health care and education to illegal immigrants - especially to their children.

"You don't want to see a child go hungry or go ill," said Beverly Taylor, a retired postal worker in Indiana.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.