In the nearly two decades since Californians voted to bar undocumented immigrants from utilizing public schools and hospitals, the state's electorate has become increasingly tolerant toward people who are in the country illegally, although it remains tough on border security and enforcement, a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll shows.
The shift is partly explained by the growing clout of Latinos, who now make up 20% of California voters. But the attitudes of whites also appear to have changed.
If placed on the ballot today, a measure similar to Proposition 187 would be supported by 46% of voters, according to the poll, with 44% against — a statistical tie, given the 2.9% margin of error. In 1994, by contrast, the proposition passed with 59% of the vote.
The primary provisions of the measure did not survive legal challenges, and were never enacted.
In another sign of the electorate's evolving attitudes, Californians overwhelmingly are in favor of President Obama's new program granting work permits and a two-year reprieve from deportation to some young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Respondents also favor granting driver's licenses to the same group.
But voters' generosity toward the undocumented apparently has limits: The poll found that most Californians want increased border enforcement and think that local police and sheriffs should have a role in apprehending suspected illegal immigrants.
"Californians seem to be sending a message to the federal government that reasonable people ought to be able to find a solution to this problem, somewhere in between the ideological opposites of amnesty and self-deportation," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. "This sounds like an electorate that's looking for a middle ground."
The USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences/Los Angeles Times poll was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm, and American Viewpoint, a Republican company. Telephone interviews took place with 1,504 registered voters from Oct. 15 to Oct. 21.
Although there are no immigration-related measures on the Nov. 6 ballot, the poll results point to where California may be heading at a time when states are increasingly devising their own solutions to immigration reform, which has stalled in Washington, D.C.
Schnur called the electorate's move away from Proposition 187 "a profound change" — with the opinions of whites and Latinos converging over the last two decades.
A Times exit poll the day of the 1994 election found that 63% of whites voted for the proposition. White respondents in the latest poll remain in favor, but by a narrower 51%-41% margin.
Only 23% of Latino voters favored Proposition 187 in 1994, when about 8% of voters were Latino. Today, 33% favor such a proposal at a time when Latinos make up 20% of the electorate.
Increased contact with immigrants may have softened opinions among white voters, while the second- and third-generation offspring of Latino immigrants may adopt harder stances against newcomers, pollsters and immigration experts said.
Foreign-born Latinos opposed Proposition 187 by nearly 2 to 1 in this month's poll, while only 48% of third-generation Latinos were against it.
"When it comes to things like knowing somebody who is an immigrant or who is gay, all of these seem to be correlated with more acceptance," said Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.
In the current poll, the divergence between white and Latino respondents was especially wide on a measure criticized because it could lead to racial profiling. Latinos would strongly oppose a proposal similar to Arizona's SB 1070, which allows police to ask for papers if there is "reasonable suspicion" the person is in the country illegally. While a majority of poll respondents approved of the idea, 67% of Latinos opposed it.
"When they feel like those measures are targeting them, that's really where that intensity comes from," said Dave Kanevsky of American Viewpoint.
Latino respondents appear less wary of law enforcement at the border: 46% of them said they favored sending National Guard troops to the border and providing more federal border agents. Overall, 60% of those polled favored such an idea.
"There's clear support for stronger border enforcement but a bigger level of ambivalence about denying illegal immigrants services," said Drew Lieberman of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research. "This occurs among both whites and Latinos."
Jose Roberto Lopez was once an illegal immigrant. His mother brought him to California from El Salvador when he was 9 years old. Now 45, he is a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. His family was legalized in the 1986 amnesty, and he became a U.S. citizen in 2000.
The Diamond Bar resident said it wasn't fair to deport someone who didn't choose to come here and who was educated in American schools from a young age. But he said he supports tighter border controls to stop people from arriving illegally in the first place.
"We have to stop the leak sometime," Lopez said. "We need to have the border secure, not only for security but because a lot of immigrants that are coming in are taking a lot of jobs. Americans should be able to get those jobs."
Poll respondent Cari Penhall, 56, a FedEx employee from Costa Mesa, said she strongly opposed Obama's deferred action program, strongly opposed giving driver's licenses to young illegal immigrants and strongly favored pro-enforcement measures. She is of Mexican ancestry but far removed from the immigrant experience: Her family has lived in the U.S. for six generations.
"The biggest problem with illegals isn't them, per se, but that no one is fixing it," said Penhall, who considers herself an independent and plans to vote for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "If we keep giving them all this, the government is never going to fix it. They need to come up with a comprehensive plan that actually works.... I just want something to get done."