Almost two-thirds of California voters believe that illegal immigration is a major problem in the state, but by even larger majorities they reject the idea of mass deportations and favor allowing those currently living in the country without authorization to stay and apply for citizenship.
But the state's voters reject the sorts of measures proposed by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who has called for a deportation force to expel the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally.
More than three-fourths of voters said they believed immigrants who are already here should be allowed to stay. Sixty-five percent said such immigrants should be allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship, while 14% said they should be allowed to stay and work legally in the country but not apply for citizenship. Only 16% said that they should be required to leave the country.
By more than 2 to 1, voters said they opposed building a wall along the southern U.S. border to prevent immigrants from entering illegally, another hallmark of Trump's campaign.
"A lot of what has been talked about doesn't seem viable to most voters," said pollster Randall Gutermuth of the Republican polling firm American Viewpoint, part of the bipartisan team that conducted the survey for The Times and USC.
Just 36% of Republican voters likely to participate in the state's primary in June said immigrants already here should be required to leave, he noted. Only 8% of likely voters in the Democratic primary took that position.
"It is definitely not accurate to say that this mass-deportation language is the majority opinion, including of the Republican Party" in California, Gutermuth said.
Republicans, however, are far more likely to see illegal immigration as a serious problem, with half of likely primary voters viewing it as a crisis and another 42% calling it a major problem.
The poll showed that opinions on illegal immigration vary widely depending on age. The significant generational divide suggests immigration could be among the issues that are separating the GOP from younger voters in California.
Older Californians are much more likely than their younger counterparts to view illegal immigration as a crisis, the poll found. While more than a third of voters 65 and older think illegal immigration is a crisis, just 8% of voters age 18 to 29 think that. One in five voters 65 and older favor requiring immigrants in the country illegally to leave, compared with 1 in 10 of those 18 to 29.
That can partly be explained by the fact that younger voters in the state are more likely to be minorities. But even among white voters, there is a big age gap.
Just 10% of whites aged 18 to 29 said they felt there was an immigration crisis, according to the poll, compared with 76% of whites over the age of 64.
Manuel Pastor, director of USC's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, said younger voters are more likely to be open-minded toward immigration in part because of how and where they grew up.
"People of color have been the majority in the state of California since 1999," Pastor said. "Really the debate about immigrants is a debate about identity. And younger people are much more likely than older generations to have experienced some diversity in their schools and their own life."
That is the case for Jonathan Danielson, 28, a poll respondent who grew up in Palo Alto alongside immigrants and the children of immigrants from Asia and the Middle East. Now an Army officer stationed in Alaska, Danielson serves alongside a diverse group of soldiers who have helped shape his views on immigration, he said.
He believes immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed visas should be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship.
"If they're here, and they're contributing, they deserve a shot," he said. "I was just born here; that doesn't make me any better than somebody who risked their lives and traveled thousands of miles to come here."
For Danielson, even illegal immigration is a positive sign for the country.
"The fact that the U.S. is a draw for people looking to improve their situation seems like a good sign for us," he said. "Having different perspectives gives you better solutions."
A Democrat, Danielson said he and some of his peers are turned off from the Republican Party in part because leaders like Trump have demonized immigrants.
"It's definitely a part of it," Danielson said. "These guys are still spouting this rhetoric about nameless, faceless immigrants, and we're going, 'These people are our friends, we grew up with them,'." he said.
That is starkly different than the views embraced by John Leary, 71, a retired aerospace engineer who lives outside San Jose and who also responded to the poll.
"These people are criminals. They don't respect the country," Leary said of immigrants in the U.S. illegally. "I want them to be put in jail or thrown out of the country. I don't want to be a person who is supporting criminal activity."
Leary, who grew up in what he described as a racially insular neighborhood in Philadelphia and moved to California as a young man, said he has been dismayed as the state has grown more Latino.
"It's rapidly becoming Hispanic because we have huge numbers of criminal Hispanics in the country" as a result of illegal immigration, he said.
Leary said he believes younger voters don't care as much about illegal immigration because they aren't shouldering the costs.
"The older voters are paying the taxes," he said. "The younger generation doesn't have the responsibilities."
The California poll findings echoed those of a recent national poll that showed that a generational split on immigration is present among Republican voters across the country.
That poll, published this week by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that younger Republicans are much more likely to have favorable views of immigration and to support a path to citizenship for immigrants in the United States illegally than are older Republican voters. A similar generational divide has shown up among Republicans on issues such as same-sex marriage, polls have shown.
Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said the USC/Times poll's findings on immigration could present some opportunities for Republicans.
While the poll found that a majority of voters don't support mass deportation or a border wall, it highlighted voter concerns about state resources going to immigrants in the country illegally.
The poll found 50% of voters opposed allowing immigrants in the country illegally to qualify for student loans at state universities, compared with 46% who support that. It found that by 52% to 43%, voters opposed extending Medi-Cal, the state healthcare program for low-income families, to all immigrants living here illegally, rather than only children, as is now the law.
Forty-seven percent of voters supported a ban on "sanctuary cities," which refuse to hand immigrants suspected of being in the U.S. without permission over to federal immigration authorities for deportation after they have been arrested for crimes. Forty-four percent opposed such a ban.
Those findings suggest there could be support for Republicans who oppose such measures, Schnur said.
The USC Dornsife/Times poll was taken by telephone, calling landlines and cellphones, from March 16 through March 23 among 1,503 registered California voters. It was conducted by the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and the Republican firm American Viewpoint. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points for the full sample, with higher error margins for sub-samples.
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