New Poll: Americans Favor a Guest Worker Plan

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Mexican citizens employed by a U.S. company wait to see a foreign officer to apply for a temporary work visa

Americans polled by TIME magazine show strong support for a guest-worker program and a process for undocumented workers to become citizens, but they take a tough stance on securing the borders. And most do not want illegal immigrants to have access to health care, public education or driver's licenses.

In the telephone survey of 1,004 adults, conducted Wednesday and Thursday, 79% say they favor a guest worker program that would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. for a fixed period of time — the main provision of the bill proposed by Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy that is now under fierce debate in Congress. Only 47% of those polled say they support the tougher measure backed by some House conservatives, deporting all illegal immigrants back to their home countries.

Although Americans want to give illegal immigrants the chance to work in the U.S. temporarily and even earn citizenship—78% say illegal immigrants who learn English, have a job and pay taxes ought to have a chance at it—they also want better enforcement both at the border and inside the country. A large majority, 71%, favor major penalties for people who hire illegal immigrants; 62% want the U.S. to take "whatever steps are necessary" to secure the border with Mexico, including posting military forces; and 56% favor a 2,000-mile-long fence. That two-pronged approach to illegal immigration is the same one favored by President Bush, who wants both a guest worker program and tighter border security.

Americans' biggest concerns about illegal immigration appear to be economic: 61% of those polled say they are very concerned about the cost of providing health care and education to illegal immigrants. A substantial majority, 75%, say they should not be allowed to have government services, such as health care or food stamps, and 69% say they shouldn't be able to get a driver's license. A slight majority, 51%, think public schools ought to be off-limits.

While the President's position on illegal immigration is clearly resonating with many voters, it hasn't helped his sagging approval ratings. They sank to 37% in the poll, a new low.