Poll Analysis: Large Majority Favors 'Guest Workers'

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With the immigration debate raging in Congress and immigration supporters spilling out into the streets, the latest TIME Poll finds a lopsided majority of the American public, 72%, favor a "guest worker" program in a head-to-head match-up over a House bill that would criminalize illegal immigration.

  • Only 1 in 4 (25%) supports the more drastic House version that would make illegals felons, allowing no illegals into the country, with no guest worker provisions.

The latest TIME Poll of 1,004 adults, conducted March 29-30, finds that even a large majority of border state residents, 78%, favor the guest worker approach over expelling illegals. Large majorities of Republicans (66%), Democrats (75%), and Independents (73%) favor the guest worker approach.

Please Tell Me Which Comes Closest To Your Views
% FavorTotal (%)Republican (%)Democrat (%)Independent (%)
Allow Illegal Immigrants To Get Temporary Work Visas72667573
Make Illegal Immigration a Crime And Not Allow Anyone Who Entered The Country Illegaly to Work or Stay In the U.S.25322224

Favor Tougher Border Security Too
As a fractured Congress debates immigration reform, two-thirds (68%) say that illegal immigration is an extremely/very serious problem in the United States. A large majority believe the U.S. is not doing enough to secure its borders (82%).

While Americans overwhelmingly favor the guest worker option, they also want a crackdown at the border and stiff penalties for employers who hire illegals.

  • 82% say that the United States is not doing enough to keep illegals from entering this country.
  • 62% favor taking whatever steps are necessary at the borders, including the use of the military, to cut the flow of illegals into this country.
  • 56% favor building a security fence along the U.S.-Mexican border.
  • 71% support major penalties for employers who hire illegals.

    Contradictions and Limits to Illegals' Access to Services

The debate has Americans voicing sometimes contradictory opinions. A small majority (51%) still think the U.S. would be "better off" by deporting all illegal immigrants compared to a little less than two in five (38%) who think the U.S. would be "worse off."

Americans would also limit illegals' access to government services, such as driver's licenses (69% not allow), health care/food stamps (75% not allow), and attending public schools (51% not allow).

Support Beyond Guest Workers Most Americans would allow illegal immigrants to gain citizenship under certain circumstances.

  • About 7 in 10 (72%) favor granting temporary visas to immigrants not currently in the United States to do seasonal or temporary work here and then return to their own countries;
  • About 3 in 4 (78%) favor allowing illegal immigrants in the U.S. citizenship if they learn English, have a job and pay taxes;
  • A majority (55%) think illegal immigrants are taking jobs that U.S. citizens do not want or cannot do.

Demonstrations Backfire?
About 2 in 3 (67%) are aware of this week's demonstrations by immigrants and immigrant rights activists in a number of cities. The demonstrations likely had little effect currying support for their pro-immigrant position. Among the people who were aware of the demonstrations, only 14% reported that the protests made them more supportive of rights for illegal immigrants, while almost three times as many, 40%, said that the demonstrations make them less supportive. Almost half (44%) said that the demonstrations had no effect on their stance.

Partisanship and Geography Differences
Partisan differences complicate the issue further. However, these are mainly differences in degree:

  • Republicans more than Democrats believe illegal immigration is a very serious problem (79%-64%), as do white, born-again Christians (76%).
  • Republicans are more in favor than Democrats of providing and enforcing major penalties for employers convicted of hiring illegals (77%-66%), stopping illegals at the border from entering the U.S. by whatever steps necessary (71%-54%) and deporting all illegals back to their home countries (58%-42%).

Do You Favor or Oppose the Following to Deal with Illegal Immigration?
% Favor Total (%) Republican (%) Democrat (%)
Allowing illegal immigrants to register as guest workers79 79 77
Allowing illegal immigrants in the U.S. citizenship if they learn English, have a job and pay taxes 78 73 82
Granting temporary visas to immigrants not in the U.S. so they can do seasonal/temporary work and return to home countries 72 72 71
Providing and enforcing penalties for employers convicted of hiring illegal immigrants 71 77 66
Stopping illegal immigrants from entering the U.S. by taking whatever steps necessary to guard the border 62 71 54
Deporting all illegal immigrants 47 58 45

Other Political Fallout
As President Bush meets in Cancun on immigration and trade issues with the leaders of Mexico and Canada, Bush's overall approval rating sits at 37%. A majority disapprove of his handling of illegal immigration (56% disapprove, 25% approve). His disapproval score on immigration is down five points from January's: 61% disapprove, 24% approve.

Almost equal numbers of Americans are more likely to vote for (29%) or vote against (28%) a candidate who favors criminalizing illegal immigration. More than 1 in 3 (37%) say it wouldn't have much effect on their vote. Republicans in Congress are more likely to feel the heat on this issue. Republicans (37%) are more likely than Democrats (24%) to support a candidate for Congress who favors making illegal immigration a crime.

  • Half of Hispanics (50%)— a hotly contested group courted by both parties — would punish candidates who favored criminalization of illegals.

    Concerns about Illegal Immigration

The biggest concern for Americans regarding illegal immigration is the drain on taxpayers' dollars to provide services such as health care and education to them (61% "very concerned"). Concern is higher among Republicans (67%) and Southerners (65%). Other major concerns about illegal immigrants are that they:

  • increase the likelihood of terrorism in the U.S. (44% very concerned).
  • American workers can't compete with low wages (43%).
  • increase the amount of crime (40%).
  • take jobs away from Americans (35%).
  • overcrowd the country, with too many people in the U.S. now (33%).
  • weaken American way of life (29%).

How Concerned Are You About Each Item Concerning Illegal Immigrants?
% Very ConcernedTotal (%) Republican (%) Democrat (%) Independent (%)
Costs taxpayers too much money to provide them with services 61 67 57 61
They increase the likelihood of terrorism in the U.S. 44 52 40 44
American workers can't afford to work for the same low wages as illegal immigrants 43 43 43 42
They increase the amount of crime 40 46 38 39
They take jobs away from Americans 35 36 37 30
There are too many people in the U.S. 33 30 34 33
Weaken American way of life 29 33 25 28

Methodology This TIME Magazine poll was conducted by telephone between March 29-30, 2006 among a national random sample of 1,004 adults, age 18 and older throughout America.

The margin of error for the entire sample is approximately +/- 3 percentage points. The margin of error is higher for subgroups. Surveys are subject to other error sources as well, including sampling coverage error, recording error, and respondent error.

The Poll's partisan breakdown is as follows:
32% Democrat
28% Republican
25% Independent

Schulman, Ronca, & Bucuvalas (SRBI) Public Affairs designed the survey and conducted all interviewing. The full TIME questionnaire and trend data may be found at: www.srbi.com.