Poll: Obama executive action on immigration narrowly divides Americans

Obama's action on immigration evenly divides Americans, but has not changed views on the overall debate

Americans divide almost evenly over President Obama's move to shield millions of immigrants from deportation, but despite the controversy over his action, underlying views on immigration have barely budged, a new poll has found.

Obama's action gets approval from 46% of Americans while 50% disapprove, the poll found.

Overall, 70% of Americans say that undocumented immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally "should have a way to stay in the country legally," with 27% saying they should not be allowed to stay.

Slightly more than 4 in 10 say that such immigrants should be eligible to apply for citizenship while another quarter of Americans say they should be able to apply for permanent residency in the U.S., but not citizenship, according to the new poll by the Pew Research Center.

Those figures have remained relatively constant all year, despite the intense debate over immigration policy.

But Republican support for legal status has dropped during the course of the year. In February, 64% of Republicans said they supported some sort of legal status, now 53% do, while 42% say immigrants who are here illegally should not be allowed to stay. Among Republicans who identify with the tea party, support for legal status has dropped most steeply, going from 56% in February to 42% now.

Nearly all the shift in GOP opinion, however, took place during the spring and early summer. Obama's executive action, for all the political heat it has generated, has not caused significant additional movement among Republicans.

Where Obama's action has caused a shift is among Latinos. His approval rating on handling of immigration issues has jumped from 43% among Latinos a year ago to 67% now.

While the Pew poll has not asked about Obama's approval often enough to pinpoint when that shift among Latinos took place, other surveys have found a big jump in approval of Obama among that group after the immigration executive action was announced. The Gallup poll, for example, found Obama's overall approval among Latinos climbed 12 points, to 64%, after the announcement.

Obama's action gains majority approval among those Americans younger than 50,  those with at least a college degree and both blacks and Latinos. It is opposed by older Americans, those with some college education or less and by nearly 2-1 among white Americans.

One factor driving the immigration debate: About two-thirds of Americans say they feel "sympathetic" toward immigrants who have entered the U.S. illegally. That number has stayed relatively consistent throughout the debate of the last two years, although the share of Americans who say they feel "very sympathetic" has grown somewhat and now stands at just under 1 in 4.

Majorities of both Democrats and independents say they feel sympathetic while Republicans split closely, with 52% saying they feel sympathetic and 45% unsympathetic. Views on that issue correspond very closely to how people feel about Obama's executive action, the poll found.

The Pew poll, conducted for USA Today, questioned 1,507 American adults Dec. 3-7. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points.

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