July 16, 2014

Surge of Central American Children Roils U.S. Immigration Debate

Obama Job Rating Steady, No Change in Economic Views

Survey Report

As the president and Congress struggle over how to deal with the influx of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America across the U.S.-Mexican border, a new survey finds that the public favors a shift in U.S. policy to expedite the legal processing of the children.

US border influx responsePresident Obama gets very low ratings for his handling of the issue. Just 28% of the public approves of the way he is handling the surge of children from Central America, while twice as many (56%) disapprove. That is one of the lowest ratings for his handling of any issue since he became president. But Obama’s overall job rating is virtually unchanged from April: 44% approve of his job performance while 49% disapprove.

And as was the case in January, neither party has a significant edge when it comes to dealing with immigration; 42% say the Republican Party could do a better job on the issue while 40% say the Democratic Party.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted July 8-14 among 1,805 adults, finds that about half (53%) think that the legal process for dealing with Central American children who cross the border illegally should be accelerated, even if that means that some children who are eligible for asylum are deported. Fewer (39%) support staying with the current policy, even though the process could take a long time and the children will stay in the U.S. in the interim.

Most Republicans (60%) and independents (56%) think legal processing of the children should be sped up even if it means some children who are eligible for asylum are deported. Democrats are divided: 46% favor an expedited legal process, but about as many (47%) favor maintaining the current policy, though that might result in a lengthy legal process and a long stay in the U.S. for the children.

Republicans Now Less Supportive of Legal Status for Undocumented ImmigrantsThe public remains supportive of a broad revamp of the immigration system to allow people in the U.S. illegally to gain legal status if they meet certain requirements. But overall support for a path to legal status has slipped to 68% from 73% in February. Those who favor providing legal status for undocumented immigrants were asked if they should be able to apply for citizenship or permanent residency. Overall, 40% say they should be able to apply for citizenship, down from 46% in February.

Republicans, who supported a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants by nearly two-to-one in February (64% to 34%), favor it by a much narrower 54%-43% margin today. Notably, more Republicans and Republicans leaners who agree with the Tea Party now say undocumented immigrants should not be allowed to stay in the U.S. legally than favor a path to legal status (56% to 41%). In February, the balance of opinion among Tea Party Republicans was exactly the reverse: 56% said undocumented immigrants in the U.S. illegally should be allowed to stay legally while 41% opposed this.

By contrast, there has been far less change in opinions among Democrats and independents: 77% of Democrats and 70% of independents say there should be a way for people in the U.S. illegally to stay legally if they meet certain requirements, down four points each from February.

Little Change in Assessments of Obama

In five national surveys this year, Obama’s overall job approval has changed very little. Currently, 44% approve of his job performance, virtually unchanged from earlier this year. For a comparison of views of Obama with those of his predecessor George W. Bush at similar points in their presidencies, see today’s Fact Tank post.

While Obama gets mixed ratings, at best, for being trustworthy (51%), a strong leader (47%) and able to get things done (44%), these ratings also are little changed since reaching all-time lows last December, shortly after the government shutdown and the flawed rollout of the health care website.

Positive Views of Obama Fell in 2013, But Have Changed Little So Far in 2014At the same time, the public’s views of the nation’s economy and local job availability also have shown little change — and remain very negative despite recent job growth and a declining unemployment rate. Just 19% say economic conditions in the U.S. are excellent or good while 81% rate conditions as only fair or poor. Roughly six-in-ten (62%) say jobs are difficult to find locally while only about half as many (29%) say there are plenty of jobs available. While the share saying jobs are available is much higher than in 2009 or 2010, it has not changed over the past year.

Obama’s rating for handling the economy remains in negative territory. Currently, 40% approve of the way he is handling the economy while 56% disapprove. His job rating on the economy has been around 40% for most of the past five years.

GOP Leads on Economy, Democrats on Abortion/Contraception Policies The Republicans now hold an eight-point advantage as the party better able to deal with the economy (47% to 39%). The GOP had an insignificant 42%-38% edge in January.

When it comes to other issues, the two parties run about even on foreign policy and immigration. The Democrats hold a five-point lead (45% to 40%) as better able to deal with health care and a more substantial 12-point advantage (48% to 36%) as the party better able to deal with policies on abortion and contraception.

There are gender and age differences in views of which party can better handle abortion and contraception policies. On this issue, men favor the Democrats by six points (46% to 40%) while women support the Democrats by 18 points (51% to 33%). Among those younger than 30, the Democrats lead the GOP by 54% to 36%. By contrast, the two parties run even among those 65 and older (39% Democrats, 39% Republicans).

Views of Policy to Deal with Children Crossing Border

Most Americans (89%) have heard at least a little about the large number of Central American children who have crossed the border illegally. Nearly six-in-ten (57%) say they have heard a lot about the recent influx of children.

Hispanics Divided over How to Deal with Children in the U.S. Illegally Respondents were asked about U.S. policy to deal with the influx of children from Central America: Under that policy “children from Central America who enter the U.S. illegally go through a legal process that can take months” before the children are either given asylum or are deported.

Overall, 53% favor speeding up this legal process “even if it means some children eligible for asylum are deported.” About four-in-ten (39%) say the U.S. should follow current policy “even though the process could take a long time while the children remain here.”

By 57% to 38%, people younger than 30 favor sticking with current law even if that means the children may stay in the U.S. for a long time. Majorities in older age groups favor speeding up the legal process for Central American children here illegally even if it results in some children who are eligible for asylum being deported.

Hispanics are divided, with 49% in support of following current U.S. policy and 47% favoring an expedited legal process for the Central American children. Most whites (56%) favor speeding up the legal process, while African Americans, by 53% to 42%, support following current law.

Among ideological groups, conservative Republicans are most likely to favor speeding up the legal process to deal with the Central American children here illegally (65% favor). By contrast, liberal Democrats are the only group in which a majority (54%) supports following current U.S. policy in dealing with the children.

Passage of Immigration Legislation Viewed as More Important

A growing share of Americans views the passage of immigration legislation as an important priority. In February, as Congress considered comprehensive immigration legislation, 49% said it was extremely or very important that Congress and the president pass “significant new immigration legislation.”

More Say It is Important to Pass ‘Significant’ Immigration Legislation Today, with prospects for comprehensive legislation diminished and Congress addressing ways to deal with the increasing number of Central American children crossing the border illegally, 61% say passage of a new immigration bill is extremely or very important.

About six-in-ten Republicans and independents (61% each) say passage of new immigration legislation is highly important up from 46% and 44%, respectively, in February. Among Democrats, there has been virtually no change in opinion about the importance of passing a new immigration bill (63% extremely/very important today, 60% in February).

Whites and blacks are far more likely to view passage of new immigration legislation as very important than did so five months ago, but there has been almost no change in opinions among Hispanics.

Views of Obama Little Changed

Barack Obama Job ApprovalOverall, 49% disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president, while 44% say they approve. Obama’s job rating has shown no change in recent months. In fact, views of Obama’s job performance have been steady reaching back to December of last year.

Obama Gets Low Marks for Handling of Border Crossing SituationOn several current issues, Obama’s ratings are considerably more negative than his overall rating. By two-to-one (56%-28%), more disapprove than approve of the way Obama is handling the situation involving the large number of children from Central America who have entered the country illegally. Even among Democrats, just 47% approve of his handling of the situation at the border; 37% disapprove and 16% do not offer a response.

Ratings are not much better for how Obama is handling the situation is Iraq. With Sunni militants in control of large swaths of the country, 35% approve of how Obama is dealing with Iraq, while 54% disapprove.

Low Ratings for Obama on Economy, Foreign PolicyNegative ratings also extend to Obama’s handling of the U.S. economy. A 56%-majority disapproves of how Obama is dealing with the economy, compared with 40% who say they approve. While ratings of Obama’s job on the economy are poor, as they have been throughout much of his presidency, they have been worse at other points in his presidency, when disapproval reached into the 60s.

Similarly, far more disapprove (55%) than approve (36%) of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, though his current ratings are little different than they were last fall.

Mixed Views of Obama’s Personal Traits

Despite low ratings for his performance on issues, views of Obama’s personal traits and characteristics are generally more positive.

Broad majorities describe Obama as someone who stands up for what he believes in (70%) and as a good communicator (66%). Majorities also say Obama is in touch with what is going on in the government (57%) and that he cares about people like them (54%).

Obama Gets High Marks for Empathy, Communication, but Not EffectivenessViews of Obama’s trustworthiness are more mixed: 51% say they think of Obama as trustworthy; 47% do not think he is trustworthy.

Obama gets his lowest marks on views of his leadership and effectiveness. Overall, 47% say they think of Obama as a strong leader, while 50% say he is not a strong leader. Similarly, 44% say Obama is able to get things done, compared with 53% who say he is not able to get things down.

Views of Obama’s personal traits are little changed from December of last year.

Most View Michelle Obama Favorably, but Ratings Edge Lower

Favorability of Barack and Michelle ObamaAs with his overall job approval, Barack Obama’s favorability rating has shown little change. Overall, 50% have a favorable view of him, while about as many (48%) view him unfavorably. In January, 51% held a favorable view of the president.

Michelle Obama remains more positively viewed than her husband. About six-in-ten (62%) have a favorable view of the first lady compared with just 30% who have an unfavorable view. Nonetheless, Michelle Obama’s favorable ratings have edged down slightly from January, when 68% viewed her favorably.

Economic Ratings Little Changed, Jobs Remain Scarce

Dim Views of National EconomyViews of the national economy remain gloomy. Overall, just 19% rate conditions as either excellent (2%) or good (17%), while 46% say they are only fair and 35% say they are poor.

Most Say Jobs in Their Community Remain ‘Difficult to Find’In addition, the public has little confidence that the economy is on its way up. About a quarter (26%) say they expect economic conditions to be better in a year, nearly as many (22%) think they will be worse; 51% expect the economy to be about the same a year from now. There has been no increase in economic optimism this year.

Furthermore, the declining unemployment rate has had hardly any impact on the public’s impression of job availability. About six-in-ten (62%) say that job opportunities where they live are difficult to find; just 29% say there are plenty of jobs available in their community.

Views are nearly identical to those measured in June 2013 when the unemployment rate was more than a full point higher than today (7.5% then, 6.1% now). At that time, 64% said that jobs were difficult to find, compared with 29% who said there were plenty available.