An overwhelming majority of Californians say they are fed up with illegal immigration, with 86% describing it as a major or moderate problem and nearly three-quarters in favor of using the National Guard to patrol the southern border, a new Los Angeles Times Poll has found.
The statewide survey, conducted at a time of heightened political and media attention on immigration, removed any doubt that the public has lost patience with what it sees as illegal immigrants' drain on government resources during a lingering recession.
Seventy-six percent of Californians said illegal immigrants take more from the national economy in social services and health care than they contribute in productivity and taxes.
And more than half the respondents said legal immigration, too, should be pared back.
"Anti-immigrant feeling is definitely up," said Times Poll director John Brennan, who conducted the survey among 1,162 California residents from Sept. 10-13. "The bottom line is, people believe immigration is the third-largest problem facing California."
Respondents mentioned only the economy and crime more frequently than immigration when asked what the state's "most important" problem was.
Moreover, when asked to name the "greatest benefit our country receives from foreign immigration these days," 43% of poll respondents said there were no benefits at all. Tied for second place, with 17% each, were providing cheap labor and bringing cultural diversity.
"I've lived up here for 31 years," said poll respondent Cindy White, 36, a mother of three and a public school aide in the small Shasta County town of Fall River Mills, about 70 miles from the Oregon border. "There are so many more of them, so many more of them in our schools. Their parents won't speak our language, and they don't seem to try to improve their lifestyles. There are exceptions, but most of them don't."
Los Angeles respondent Carlos Jones, 51, said he resented the fact that his Medi-Cal benefits are being cut back "while these people come over from Mexico and they get on welfare. If you're working for a living, you're paying for it.
"The more I talk about it, the angrier I get."
Although undocumented immigrants are not legally eligible for welfare, their U.S.-born children are eligible for all benefits of citizenship, including the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program, the nation's fastest-growing welfare program.
In addition, the thriving market in counterfeit documents has fueled fraud in such programs, and helped give rise to the public's mistaken belief that most illegal immigrants end up on the dole. This does not sit well in California, where an estimated 52% of all illegal immigrants live.
Sixty-nine percent of Californians called illegal immigration a major problem, with another 17% characterizing it as a moderate-size problem. Only 3% said they would not call it a problem at all.
As a result, ideas for curbing the flow of illegal immigrants that were once dismissed as the purview of radical fringes are gaining respectability among the mainstream. Lines dividing liberals and conservatives blur.
When asked about Gov. Pete Wilson's idea of amending the U.S. Constitution to deny automatic citizenship to American-born children of illegal immigrants, 54% of Californians said they approved. Forty percent, including 62% of Latinos, did not.
Despite the oft-repeated threats of creeping Big Brotherism, nearly three of every five Californians said they approved of requiring all legal U.S. residents--citizens and non-citizens--to carry a tamper-proof identity card when applying for work or government benefits. Eighty percent favored non-citizen legal residents carrying such a card.
And 73% of Californians said National Guard troops should be dispatched to assist the Border Patrol along the nation's porous southern border, an idea proposed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) but opposed by the Border Patrol. Instead, Border Patrol officials prefer increased funding for more fully trained agents.
"You don't need the military on the U.S. border," said Mike Hance, San Diego president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union. "That would be counterproductive. That is not an armed invasion coming across."
But poll respondent Helen Simoni, an 81-year-old retired federal worker from San Francisco, said: "I think it would be a good idea. Everybody's complaining about the illegals. And it would give the National Guard something to do."
An equal percentage of those surveyed (73%) also said they liked California Sen. Dianne Feinstein's idea of charging $1 to everyone entering the country as a means of increasing funding for the Border Patrol.
Former INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson, who now represents the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Sacramento, said: "I think, finally, the problems are becoming more known, more agreed to. . . . And I will take some credit for this.
"Our side of the aisle, so to speak, has finally gotten a turn at the bat. All the immigrants rights groups have been making noises for all these years. . . . But you can only go so long without dealing with this.
"I think people are saying: 'Enough of this stuff. Let's do something.' That's why you've got all the politicians really starting to talk about it. Before, it was more of a political risk. Now they can't avoid it."
But in a telling sign of the ambiguity that many Americans feel about the volatile issue, 55% of Californians said they still hold the view that illegal immigrants take jobs that would otherwise go begging.
Likewise, most Californians were opposed to at least one of two key planks of Wilson's immigration proposals: prohibiting illegal immigrants from attending American public schools and denying them emergency medical care.
Seamstress Raquel Leyva, a 30-year-old Hemet resident who responded to the poll in Spanish, called the ideas unjust.
"In reality, this doesn't affect me now," she said. "But I was an illegal once. We should all have the right to education. I'm not saying that we should financially support them, but children should have an education. In order to get ahead, you need education."
Fifty-four percent of survey respondents said they were against denying education to illegal immigrants, as opposed to 39% who supported the idea. On emergency medical care, 74% opposed denying care, while 23% said they would welcome the prospect.
"People might not like every aspect of Wilson's plan," poll director Brennan said, "but, overall, they like the fact that the issue has been raised."
And while 33% said they believed the new crop of immigrants have inferior job skills and education than did their predecessors, a slightly higher number (38%) said they have the same. Fourteen percent said the newcomers are superior to those who came before.
Harry Pachon, director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said he was not at all surprised by the high numbers of Californians with anti-immigrant views.
"Once you have state and national leaders pushing anti-immigrant positions during times of economic recession, it's like throwing a spark in a tinderbox," he said. "It gives the public an easy target to blame."
But Brennan said the poll data does not support the conclusion that a sour economy is primarily responsible for the rise in concern about immigration.
"While low-income people are more anti-immigrant in some cases, the poll finds those with secure personal finances and more positive views of the California economy are as likely to call this an issue as are those who are more economically pressed," he said.
"Seventy-seven percent of those who think the state is in a serious recession call illegal immigrants a major problem, but so do 62% of those who think the state's economy is better than that. Sixty-eight percent of those with secure personal finances think it's a serious problem, almost as many as the 72% of those with shaky finances who feel that way."
The poll found that the elderly harbored the most anti-immigrant views of any major demographic group.
Robert Valdez, an immigration expert at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, echoed the belief that anti-immigrant feelings have always been a part of the collective American psyche.
"But it's particularly been peaked because of the great deal of political rhetoric, and that has stirred up sentiment," he said.
"A lot of it is whipped-up hysteria," Valdez said. "What people have not recognized is that this is part of a concerted effort in California. California is the battleground of the nation, and FAIR has laid out a strategic plan to make this a major issue."
Although illegal immigrants came in for the harshest criticism in the poll, legal immigrants also felt the heat. Fifty-two percent of Californians said legal immigration should be cut back, while 36% said the level should remain the same.
Asked what was the "greatest problem caused by foreign immigration to California these days," 44% cited use of government services, 26% said they take jobs from Americans, 15% mentioned overcrowding and 14% blamed immigrants for an increase in crime.
In an indication that all immigrants, regardless of their legal status, could be subjected to discrimination in the current anti-immigration mood, 70% of Californians said it was difficult for them to determine who was in the country legally.
And 52% said they were concerned that a crackdown on illegal immigration could lead to discrimination against all immigrants. But a sizable minority (43%) said they were not bothered by that possibility.
Anglos were about equally split on the issue, with 47% concerned and 49% not concerned. A strong 60% majority of Latinos said they were worried about the prospect.
While 45% of Californians believed that all illegal immigrant groups were causing problems equally, 32% singled out Latinos and 16% said Asians.
An idea put forth by Latino legislators and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) to seize the assets of businesses that repeatedly hire illegal immigrants had the approval of 56% of Californians. But Latinos were about evenly split on the issue, with 43% in favor and 45% opposed.
When asked what should have the higher law enforcement priority, cracking down on employers or the illegal immigrants themselves, 45% of all Californians favored an employer crackdown. Twenty-six percent said cracking down on the immigrants should have top priority, while 19% volunteered that they should have equal priority.
THE TIMES POLL: Views on Immigration
Californians feel legal immigrants hamper the state far less than those here illegally but find it hard to tell the difference between the two groups, according to a statewide survey of 1,162 residents conducted Sept. 10-13.
* How big a problem is the amount of legal immigration into California?
* How big a problem is the amount of illegal immigration into California?
LEGAL ILLEGAL Major problem 25% 69% Moderate problem 22% 17% Minor problem 19% 9% Not a problem 29% 3% Don't know 5% 2%
These days, would you say it is very easy, fairly easy, fairly difficult or very difficult to tell the difference between illegal and legal immigrants in California? Easy: 24% Difficult: 70% Don't know: 6% *
Do you favor or oppose using the National Guard to assist the Border Patrol in curtailing illegal immigration from Mexico? FAVOR: 73% OPPOSE: 19% DON'T KNOW: 8% *
Do you favor or oppose allowing state seizure of assets of employers who repeatedly hire illegal immigrants? FAVOR: 56% OPPOSE: 35% DON'T KNOW: 9% *
Do you favor or oppose amending the U.S. Constitution to bar automatic citizenship for children of illegal immigrants? FAVOR: 54% OPPOSE: 40% DON'T KNOW: 6% *
Do you favor or oppose prohibiting illegal immigrants from attending public schools? FAVOR: 39% OPPOSE: 54% DON'T KNOW: 7% *
Do you favor or oppose denying emergency medical care to illegal immigrants? FAVOR: 23% OPPOSE: 74% DON'T KNOW: 3%
How the Poll Was Conducted
The Times Poll interviewed 1,162 adult California residents statewide, from Sept. 10 to 13. Telephone numbers were chosen from a list of all exchanges in the state. Random-digit dialing techniques were used to ensure that listed and non-listed numbers could be contacted. Interviewing was conducted in English and Spanish. Results were weighted slightly to conform with census figures for sex, race, age, education and labor force participation. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points for the total sample; for other subgroups it may be somewhat higher. Poll results can also be affected by other factors such as question wording and the order in which questions are presented.