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

Results come as Congress prepares for immigration debate.

Nov. 14, 2012— -- 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.