Poll: Majority of Americans Back Pathway To Legal Status For Undocumented Immigrants

PHOTO: Angy Rivera, left, and Melissa Garcia Velez participate in an immigrant rights rally in New York.Mary Altaffer/AP Photo
In this Friday, March 16, 2012 photo, Angy Rivera, left, and Melissa Garcia Velez participate in an immigrant rights rally in New York. The two are members of the New York State Youth Leadership Council, a nonprofit, youth-led organization that fights for immigrant rights.

Most Americans back a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants, according to a new poll released Wednesday.

The findings of the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll come as immigration has become a top priority for the next Congress. Whether that legislation grants many of the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants an earned path to legal status -- citizenship, permanent residence, or something else -- will be at the forefront of the debate.

Overall, 57 percent of Americans say they would support a program that would give undocumented immigrants in the U.S. the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and "meet other requirements." Thirty-nine percent say they would oppose such a proposal.

Public opinion on a pathway to legal status is almost exactly in line from where it was in mid-2010 amid a heated debate over Arizona's immigration law. National exit polling of those who voted in last week's election showed that 64 percent favor a policy that would allow employed undocumented immigrants the chance to apply for legal status.

Immigration, in large part, became a top agenda item due to a surge in Latino support for President Barack Obama. Exit polls showed Latino voters turned out in record numbers and favored Obama over Republican Mitt Romney, 71-27 percent. That whopping margin has some Republicans who previously opposed a deal on immigration talking about returning to the negotiating table.

Based on the ABC News/Washington Post poll, 82 percent of Latinos said they back a pathway to legal status, compared to 17 percent who don't. Seventy-four percent of Latino voters said they support earned legal status, according to national exit polls. By a narrow 51-45 percent margin, whites said they back a pathway to legal status.

Opinions of younger and older Americans diverge significantly when it comes to immigration. Sixty-nine percent of those between the ages of 18 and 29 support legal status compared to 47 percent of people age 65 and older.