Poll: Bush Base Erodes on Immigration Debate

Only 45 percent of Republicans approve of how Bush is handling immigration.

February 10, 2009, 9:29 AM

June 4, 2007 — -- President Bush's immigration reform package has badly damaged his ratings on the issue from his core supporters, with his approval rating for handling immigration plummeting among Republicans and conservatives.

Fewer than half of Republicans, 45 percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, now approve of how Bush is handling immigration, down from 61 percent in April — that's a 16-point drop in six weeks. Just 35 percent of conservatives approve, down from 48 percent.

This marks one of the few times in his presidency Bush has received less than 50 percent approval from members of his own party on any issue in an ABC/Post poll. On handling the Iraq War, for comparison, he's never gone below 62 percent approval from Republicans.

This being politics, Bush has not received much concomitant gain from Democrats or independents, who are more favorably inclined toward some of his immigration proposals but not to Bush himself.

Among all Americans, just 29 percent now approve of his handling of immigration, a career low. And the public trusts the Democrats in Congress over Bush to handle the issue by 48 percent to 31 percent, essentially the same as in December.

Congress takes up the immigration package this week, and it's clearly a contentious one, with divisions among political, ideological and other groups.

Overall, a narrow majority, 52 percent, favors giving illegal immigrants the right to live and work in the United States legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements, as Bush, in a compromise plan with Democrats, has proposed. But Republicans around the country oppose the idea by a 10-point margin, 53 percent to 43 percent.

Democrats, by contrast, favor it, by 57 percent to 38 percent.

Yet, the immigration plan may have something for everyone to dislike. Among people who support a legal status program, most Democrats and independents would not include a provision requiring illegal immigrants to return to their native country in order to apply to return legally. Republicans are much more apt to like that idea.

Overall, it's clear that most Americans are not anti-immigrant, but anti-illegal immigrant. While 55 percent think illegal immigrants do more to hurt than to help the United States, legal immigrants get a much warmer welcome: They're broadly — by 63 percent to 28 percent, or better than 2 to 1 — seen as helping the country.

In a departure from other political and ideological gaps, there's essentially no difference between Democrats and Republicans, or between liberals and conservatives, in the view that legal immigrants help the country. But there are differences in views of illegals; Republicans and conservatives view them negatively by especially wide margins.

In terms of legal entry for workers, there's modest support, 53 percent to 43 percent, for significantly expanding the guest worker program that provides temporary work visas to people from other countries — another part of the proposal. Support grows substantially — to 64 percent — if the program is targeted to specific industries in which the government determines there's a shortage of worker.

There's further division on another aspect of immigration reform — the idea of giving preference to legal immigrants who have needed skills, rather than to those who have a sibling, parent or grown child already living here legally. Overall, Americans split evenly on which is preferable — 35 percent for skills, 34 percent for family, with the rest further split between preferring both equally as criteria, or neither.

Among groups, women are 11 points more apt than men to stress family ties, while men are nine points more apt to focus on skills. And there are political splits here as well; in the sharpest gap, Republican men by 2 to 1, favor job skills more than family ties as a criterion for entry, while Democratic women take the opposite position, by a 13-point margin. (Substantial numbers of Republicans and conservatives — one in five — say neither should be a criterion.)

Beyond politics, there are substantial differences among other groups in some views on immigration. In one notable division, young adults are much more favorably disposed toward illegal and legal immigrants, alike.

Younger adults are more than twice as likely as seniors to say illegal immigrants do more to help than to hurt the country. And by a 2 to 1 ratio — 64 percent to 33 percent — people age 18 to 29 support giving illegal immigrants the right to apply for legal status. That falls to about an even split among middle-age adults, and seniors oppose it by nearly a 20-point margin.

On legal immigration, Americans younger than age 40 broadly support significantly expanding the guest worker program, 61 percent to 34 percent. People 40 and older by contrast, divide evenly on the idea.

There are differences among other groups as well. The idea of a legal status program is somewhat less popular (although not broadly so) among less educated and lower income adults. And 55 percent of evangelical white Protestants (another core Republican group) oppose the idea, while, for comparison, 55 percent of nonevangelical white Protestants support it.

Some unions have viewed immigrants as competitors for jobs and a downward force on wages. The differences between people living in union and nonunion households is fairly muted — possibly reflecting the emergence of more immigrant-friendly service industry unions, with immigrant members.

This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone May 29, 2007 to June 1, 2007, among a random national sample of 1,205 adults, including an oversample of blacks, for a total of 284 black respondents. The results have a three-point error margin. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

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