May 4, 2010 -- Two-thirds of Americans want the government to do a better job of securing the borders, but they are sympathetic to illegal immigrants who have been working hard and staying out of trouble, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds.
Eight in 10 Americans are concerned that illegal immigrants burden schools, hospitals and other government services, and 77 percnet worry that they drive down wages, the poll finds.
Yet 77 percent are concerned that stricter laws would mean illegal immigrants and their families who have lived productively in the USA for years would be forced to leave.
The seeming contradiction reflects the difficulty in grappling with the issue, said Tomas Jimenez, a fellow at the non-partisan New America Foundation.
"On the one hand, they don't like the idea that people are breaking our immigration laws, that it appears we have a southern border that is out of control," Jimenez said. "On the other hand, they think the people coming here who work hard, who have dreams of a better life, are really participating in an American tradition that is as old as this country."
In the poll, 68 percent say it is extremely important or very important to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the country, and 67 percent say it is extremely or very important to develop a plan to deal with about 12 million illegal immigrants in the USA. Yet 74 percent are somewhat or very concerned that tougher immigration laws would lead to harassment of Hispanics.
Bob Dane, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said the numbers mirror the federation's positions against citizenship for illegal immigrants and for denying them jobs and benefits. "Americans want enforcement, but they're fair-minded," he said.
Ali Noorani of the Reform Immigration for America campaign, which supports a process for some illegal immigrants to become citizens, sees a sympathetic response that recognizes a broken system. "People are frustrated, but they don't want to take their frustrations out on the immigrants," he said.
• Sixty-four percent are sympathetic to illegal immigrants. Of Democrats, 75 percent are sympathetic; among Republicans, 46 percent are.
• Eighty percent of all respondents are very or somewhat concerned that allowing illegal immigrants to stay in the USA might encourage others to move here illegally.
Contributing: Paul Overberg