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Survey: Wide Support for Citizenship Path for Immigrants Here Illegally

In the months that GOP presidential candidates jockeyed to have the toughest stances on illegal immigration, a survey of thousands of Americans found that six in 10 supported a pathway to citizenship for immigrants illegally in the U.S.

The survey by the Public Religion Research Institute conducted between late April 2015 and early January of this year, found that just 19 percent of people queried thought immigrants here illegally should be identified and deported, a centerpiece of GOP frontrunner Donald Trump's campaign.

Immigration a Hot Topic at GOP Debate 1:27

Although support for a pathway to citizenship was lower among Republicans, a majority - 52 percent - still backed such a policy, the survey found. Seven in 10 Democrats are in favor.

None of the GOP candidates still vying for the party's presidential nomination - Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich - backs a path to citizenship for immigrants not legally here. Trump wants to deport the 11 million people here illegally and allow the "good ones" to return legally. Cruz wants to use tough enforcement to push out such immigrants.

Kasich wants a path to legal presence, but no citizenship. Fifteen percent of those surveyed supported such a proposal.

Related: Poll: Trump at Nearly 50 Percent Among Republicans Nationally

The survey showed support for a pathway to citizenship across partisan and religious lines.

A majority of white evangelical Protestants, 54 percent, support a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, while just less than half - 49 percent - of conservative Republicans support it.

In a state-by-state review, the institute found majorities in all states, except South Dakota, favored the path to citizenship policy.

Also significant, PRRI found that about half of those surveyed believe immigrants strengthen American society, while 39 percent think immigrants threaten American customs and values. Sixteen percent agree with or reject both statements or had no opinion.

Image: Immigrants' rights protesters in Texas
Demonstrators protest in front of the Federal Courthouse in Brownsville, Texas, on March 19, 2015 against a judge's hold on President Obama's executive action on immigration. Brad Doherty / AP

Those numbers remained about the same even as Trump jumped into the presidential race with an extreme right view on immigration and other GOP candidates began to follow his lead.

"That in itself is notable because that goes across Donald Trump declaring his candidacy and his campaign kicking up. Even with the heated rhetoric and a lot of anti-immigrant statements across the fall, that did not reshape a lot of attitudes," said Robert P. Jones, PRRI's CEO.

"It's a good reminder to us that the kind of partisan conversations that happen on both sides are conversations between a candidate and the most conservative voter in their base," Jones said. "We should not mistake the attitude of primary voters for (the attitude of) voters overall."

Other findings in the survey are:

  • Nearly half, 46 percent, of people who perceive immigrants as a threat to American values and customs favored providing immigrants here illegally a pathway to citizenship, the survey found.
  • Younger Republicans under 30 years old are more supportive of a pathway to citizenship, 63 percent.
  • A majority of Republicans, 52 percent, consider immigrants a threat to American customs and values.

The survey was based on 42,586 telephone interviews, including 21,259 cell phone interviews that were done between April 29, 2015 and January 7, 2016. The margin of error is plus or minus .6 percentage points.

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