Public Is Split Over 'Border First' Approach to Immigration Bill

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WATCH Senators Explain Why They Made a Deal to Up Border Security

Should undocumented immigrants be allowed to legalize before border security goals have been met?

This question has split Congress as it grapples with the most comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws in decades.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and USA Today might explain why this has become a focal point: the poll shows that Americans split when it comes to legalization and border security.

When questioned about when undocumented immigrants should be allowed to get legal status, 49 percent said it could happen while improvements were being made on the border, while 43 percent said it should happen only after the border is under control.

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An immigration reform bill in the Senate would allow many undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status, but it would not tie that process to meeting certain border security goals.

Some Republicans, however, have insisted that the border be secured before Congress consider granting legal status to the estimated 11 million people living in the country without authorization.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), for example, drafted an amendment to the immigration bill that would have kept newly legalized immigrants from becoming permanent residents or pursuing citizenship until certain border goals were met. Among those goals were 100 percent monitoring of the Southern border and a fully operational system to track exits at air and sea ports.

On Thursday, however, Cornyn's proposal was shot down. The senators working on immigration reform instead embraced another Republican amendment that would double the size of Border Patrol, among other border spending measures, but would not hold up citizenship in the process, according to the bill's sponsors.

The chances of an immigration reform bill passing in the Senate look good at this point, with strong Democratic backing and a growing number of Republicans on board. But the odds of passage in the House are uncertain, at best, and one of the main reasons House Republicans oppose the bill is because they believe it gives "amnesty" to undocumented immigrants before locking down the border.

The recent poll by Pew shows that Americans are fairly divided on when legalization should happen, which helps explain the partisan divide in Congress.

You can see the split over the issue among Republican voters, too. Roughly two thirds of Tea Party Republicans think border security should come before legalization. Meanwhile, non-Tea Party Republicans are split on the idea, 47 percent to 47 percent.

One interesting note: the majority of Americans -- 55 percent -- believe that illegal immigration is higher now than 10 years ago.

We don't currently have a reliable way to measure unauthorized border crossings. But Pew research has shown that the flow of immigrants from Mexico fell to net zero in recent years. And the number of people caught at the border dropped to 40-year lows despite a dramatic increase in the number of Border Patrol agents.

So there are strong indications that there's less illegal immigration now than a decade ago.

Most Americans either aren't hearing that message or they don't buy it, however. And people who said that illegal immigration was on the rise were more likely to call for securing the border before allowing undocumented immigrants to legalize.

Updated, June 24, 2013, 9:45 a.m. I noted that the poll was done in conjunction with USA Today.