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Washington – A clear majority of Minnesotans favor some system of legalizing undocumented immigrants, according to a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll that mirrors growing momentum in Congress for stronger border security and a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already here.
Although their attitudes about illegal immigrants vary widely, 64 percent of Minnesotans polled believe the federal government should provide some way of making illegal residents into legal citizens while beefing up enforcement along U.S. borders. Only 24 percent said they disagree, while 12 percent said they were not sure.
Follow-up interviews with poll respondents, however, suggest that for many a path to citizenship should follow a trip back home or a place to the “back of the line” before obtaining legal residence or full citizenship in the United States.
“I don’t think illegals living in the U.S. should be granted amnesty,” said Todd Watson, a 47-year-old disabled resident of St. Paul. “They should be sent back and made to go through the application process of becoming a citizen.”
Others who favor some form of legal status expressed a similar tough-love approach.
“They should be able to stay here, but they should have to go through everything you need to do to be here by law,” said LaShae Hinton, a 39-year-old homemaker from Minneapolis. “If you’re supposed to have a green card, then you should have a green card. There should be no loopholes.”
The poll of 800 Minnesota adults was conducted Feb. 25-27, two weeks after President Obama used his State of the Union address to promote an immigration proposal that calls for “more boots on the southern border” and “establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship.”
Obama’s plan, similar to that of a bipartisan group of senators called the “gang of eight,” includes passing a background check, paying taxes and penalties, and learning English. Obama also told Congress that those seeking legal status must go “to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally.”
Obama’s plan also has been compared to one by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate. Rubio, whose family immigrated legally from Cuba, has called for legal status for the undocumented in a way that is “long enough to ensure that it’s not easier to do it this way than it would be the legal way.”
‘Can’t deport them all’
Democrats and Republicans still differ on what form legalization might take, with Obama’s plan having fewer strings attached. Lawmakers also differ on plans to expand temporary-worker programs, including a proposal by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to offer more H-1B visas for highly skilled workers. But the immigration debate in Congress appears closer than ever to a consensus that the nation can ill afford a permanent underclass of workers living underground with no opportunity to ever become citizens.
“They can’t deport them all,” said Helmuth Schmidt, a retired baker from Bloomington. “The issue has to be resolved. The more they kick it down the road, the more ridiculous it gets.”
Republicans, in particular, have taken stock after the last election in which the nation’s fast-growing Hispanic population voted overwhelmingly for Obama. But responses to the Minnesota Poll indicate that both sides face tricky shoal waters in finding a politically viable solution to the immigration situation.
Greg Griffith, a 60-year-old truck driver from Inver Grove Heights, sees no reason to extend citizenship to immigrants who have broken U.S. laws. “You come here legally, find a job, pay your taxes, I have no problem with that,” he said. “You come across the border illegally, you get the hell out. You broke the law.”
Griffith also is suspicious of government promises to reinforce the Mexican border, even if the Obama administration says border crossings are at their lowest level in 40 years. “I don’t think enough is being done,” he said.
‘Just a sieve’
While Griffith’s politics run conservative to libertarian, even some DFL respondents in the Minnesota Poll expressed reservations about border security and the tide of illegal immigration from Latin America.
“We all know the Mexican border is just a sieve,” said Anita Sundstrom, a retired mental health worker who worries about illegal workers taking jobs around her Iron Range town of Biwabik. “They’re taking entry-level jobs, and those are jobs Americans can have. The whole illegal thing is kind of repugnant to me.”
Sundstrom would like to see a path to citizenship reserved for immigrants fleeing political persecution, not for those working here illegally to send money home to relatives. At the same time, she said she recognizes that it would be “almost physically impossible” to deport millions of undocumented workers and their families.
Even pouring more money and resources into border security, she said, would not end the problem. “If people want to get across, they’ll find a way,” she said.
While momentum for immigration reform is growing, border security has been a particularly sensitive issue for pro-reform Republicans such as Sen. John McCain, an advocate of strong border fences who still faced hostile questioning at a recent town hall meeting in Arizona.
In Minnesota, amid a multitude of reservations, support for the prevailing reform proposals floating in Congress appears to be shared across demographic groups. Metro residents and self-identified Democrats appear most solidly in agreement. The biggest split was between Democrats, 74 percent of whom back the reform proposals, and Republicans, with 63 percent approval.
“It’s a big problem,” Watson, an independent, said of the current immigration system. “Let’s put it this way: Something needs to be changed.”
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.