WASHINGTON - Nearly three in four Americans say illegal immigrants should be allowed to remain in the country legally, but fewer than half say they should be allowed to apply for citizenship.
Those are the key findings of a new national poll, released Thursday, that reflects a shift in attitudes toward immigrants now in the United States.
The survey, conducted March 13-17 by the Pew Research Center, comes as lawmakers in Washington are attempting to craft a comprehensive plan to deal with some 11 million people who are thought to be in the country illegally.
The new poll reveals opposition to granting legal status from about one in four Americans (27 percent) who say illegal immigrants should not be allowed to stay in the country legally. The remainder are split over exactly how to grant legal status. The largest group (43 percent) say immigrants living here illegally should be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. Another group (24 percent) say they should be allowed to apply for permanent legal residency, but not allowed to gain citizenship. Six percent don't know or refuse to answer. The margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The survey also found that the improving economy appears to have reduced opposition to immigration, both legal and illegal.
Nearly half of all Americans, 49 percent, say immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talent. That is the highest percentage on that question since September 2000. Conversely, a smaller proportion, 41 percent, say immigrants are a burden because they take U.S. jobs, health care and housing.
About three years ago, in June 2010, the balance of opinion was anti-immigrant. As the economy was struggling to emerge from the worst recession since the Great Depression, half of those questioned by Pew, 50 percent, considered immigrants a burden to the United States, while just 39 percent said they strengthen the country.
In the new poll, support for granting legal status is highest among blacks, 82 percent; Latinos, 80 percent; and those with college degrees, 84 percent. It is lower among whites without college degrees, 61 percent; and those aged 50-64, 65 percent. But across all demographic groups, a majority say they wanted illegal immigrants to be given a way to stay in the U.S. legally.
The differences are relatively muted along partisan lines. While 76 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of independents say they favor some form of legal status, nearly two out of three Republicans, 64 percent, say they do, too.
That warming among Republicans is reflected in another report, issued Thursday by Resurgent Republic, a moderately conservative GOP research organization. It found that conservative Republican primary voters in key states are open to an overhaul of the nation's immigration system that includes creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.