One-third of Americans want to deny social services, including public schooling and emergency room healthcare, to illegal immigrants, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.
Still, in a sign of ambivalence among voters about the emotionally charged issue, a strong bipartisan majority -- 60% -- favors allowing illegal immigrants who have not committed crimes to become citizens if they pay fines, learn English and meet other requirements.
Those crosscurrents create treacherous political waters for the major presidential candidates, many of whom have tended to avoid spotlighting the issue. But all have been forced to address the issue under repeated questioning at campaign events and candidate forums.
During Tuesday's radio debate among Democrats, the candidates were asked if citizens should turn in someone they know to be an illegal immigrant. Most said no. In other settings, however, several have been talking a tough line on issues such as denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
Some poll respondents, in follow-up interviews, expressed frustration that the candidates had not been more forthright in addressing immigration-related issues.
"I don't know what the answer is, but I don't think the candidates know what the answer is either," said Lodie Lambright, a retired state government worker in Rhode Island.
The survey, conducted under the supervision of Times Poll Director Susan Pinkus, was based on interviews conducted Friday through Monday with 1,245 registered voters. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The poll indicates that while most of those surveyed viewed illegal immigration as a key concern, it was not the most important issue on their minds.
Asked to pick from a list of issues what was a top priority for presidential candidates, 15% said illegal immigration -- the fifth-most mentioned topic behind the Iraq war, the economy, protecting the country from terrorist attacks and healthcare. Asked how much of a problem illegal immigration is, 81% of respondents said they considered it important, including 27% who said it was one of the country's most pressing problems.
The poll also makes clear that respondents make a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. Asked if illegal immigrants had made a positive or negative contribution to their community, 36% said negative, whereas 21% said positive and 29% said the effect was not discernible.
When the same question was asked about legal immigrants, 12% said their contribution was negative, compared with 46% who said positive and 31% who saw no discernible effect.
"I don't mind immigration, but I do think they need to learn the English language and should become an American citizen," said Patricia Buckner, a Florida retiree.
When those who said immigrants -- whether legal or illegal -- had made a negative contribution, they were asked in what way. The reasons most often cited were the loss of American jobs (35%), increased crime (30%) and increased cost of social services (19%).
The survey, which allowed respondents to name as many as five social services they would allow, showed a disparity: Far more people would allow access to emergency room care and schooling than other benefits, such as food stamps and driver's licenses.
About 46% of respondents said that immigrants should be able to get emergency medical treatment, and 40% said they should have access to public schools.
But 22% of those surveyed said that illegal immigrants should be able to get limited driver's licenses -- a question that has put the Democratic presidential candidates on the spot recently.
The finding underscores the political climate that caused many leading Democrats to oppose licenses for illegal immigrants when it was proposed in New York this year by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, a Democrat, who eventually backed down.
When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was asked about the proposal in a debate in late October, she praised Spitzer but stopped short of backing his plan. In a debate a few weeks later, she said she opposed driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
Some of those resisting the idea of providing a range of services to illegal immigrants say that it drains resources from U.S. citizens and legal immigrants who are in need.
"It seems like our money in this country is going out faster than it is coming in, and [the spending is] helping the people who are not U.S. citizens," said Buckner, who described herself as a liberal Democrat.
The poll also found stiff resistance to allowing illegal immigrants to pay discounted in-state tuition at public colleges: 12% of those surveyed -- including 20% of Democrats and 6% of Republicans -- supported that idea.
That illuminates why GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has taken flak from his party for supporting, while he was governor of Arkansas, a college subsidy for the children of illegal immigrants.
However, some of those polled saw a humanitarian need to provide emergency healthcare, education and other basic services to illegal immigrants, especially to their children.
"You don't want to see a child go hungry or go ill," said Beverly Taylor, a retired postal worker in Indiana.
Respondents were divided about the best solution to the problem, but a strong majority expressed support for a proposal discussed in Congress -- part of a package backed by President Bush -- that would create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States.
The plan, under which illegal immigrants could become citizens if they have no criminal record, register with the Department of Homeland Security, pay a fine, learn English and meet other requirements, was supported by 64% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans.
However, that plan died in Congress under withering fire from critics who called for the nation to tighten border security before considering more liberalized treatment of illegal immigrants.
And the plan has been little discussed by candidates on the presidential campaign trail -- even by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was one of its leading proponents.
The poll suggests that neither party heads into the 2008 election with a decisive advantage on the issue, with Democrats having lost an edge they once enjoyed.
Those surveyed were evenly split on which of the two major parties would do a better job handling immigration: 31% chose Republicans and 30% picked Democrats. By contrast, a poll in June 2006 showed 34% preferred Democrats and 23% preferred Republicans.
Associate polling director Jill Darling contributed to this report.