A sea change in attitudes toward illegal immigration?

From tax cuts to term limits, from solar cells to surfboards, trends that take off in California often make their way east. In the 1990s, California’s growing frustration on the issue of illegal immigration -- reflected in the passage of a ballot proposition that would have denied many government services to illegal immigrants had it not been found unconstitutional -- foreshadowed a national political debate.

Results from a just-released Los Angeles Times/USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences poll may signal another sea change in public opinion on immigration. As Barack Obama and Congress trade barbs about whether and how to confront the issue of immigration reform, they should consider how voter sentiments on the volatile issue continue to evolve.

Californians have historically drawn very bright lines to distinguish between their feelings on legal versus illegal immigration. So it was no surprise that many poll respondents indicated strong support for a legalization process of the type that Presidents George W. Bush and Obama have both favored -- nor was it surprising that there was a similar level of support for a guest worker program, in which immigrants can come to this country for jobs on a temporary basis.

But on another issue, public sentiment seems to be changing. In 1994, Proposition 187 passed with almost 60% of the vote, and polling done by both political parties during subsequent election campaigns has suggested that the state’s electorate would continue to support measures to deny a broad range of social services to illegal immigrants. Our new poll, however, found that California voters today are almost evenly divided on the question. Forty-five percent of respondents still support the denial of services -- including public schooling and healthcare to illegal immigrants -- but 47% oppose the idea. This represents a marked shift in public opinion with ramifications for both state and national politics and policy reform efforts.

It would be natural to assume that California’s growing numbers of Latino and Asian American voters are the reason for this historic shift. But that would be only part of the story. Although voters from these two groups oppose the denial of social services at a greater level than white or African American voters, the opinion gap on this question is much more pronounced when results are broken down demographically by age rather than race.

Californians aged 18 to 29 opposed this proposal by more than a 20-point margin, while voters 65 and over supported it by 12 points. That’s a differential of more than 30 points between age groups on the question of whether illegal immigrants should receive social services from the state, a much larger disparity than when the results were examined by racial or ethnic category. Further, on the more basic question of whether illegal immigrants have an overall positive or negative effect on the state, voters under 45 joined Latino and Asian American respondents in answering that illegal immigrants represent a net benefit.

As is the case on the issue of same-sex marriage, age has become the primary factor determining opinion on illegal immigration in California. That has not been true for other societal issues such as abortion and guns. Although young voters in California are disproportionately Latino or Asian American compared with older voters, it appears that a broader dynamic is at work here as well. Attitudes among white voters between 18 and 29 on the question of services to illegal immigrants were almost identical to those of the entire age group.

Just as young people are more likely to have gotten to know a gay neighbor or co-worker, the growth in the Latino and Asian population in the state has given young Californians a much higher comfort level than their elders with those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. In both cases, exposure has brought familiarity, which has in turn brought tolerance.

That doesn’t mean that immigration reform will necessarily be accomplished in Washington this year or next, but it does provide an early glimpse at how the issue will be resolved in the not-too-distant future.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, was communications director for Gov. Pete Wilson and an advisor to the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. John McCain.