Poll: South Carolinians favor ‘path to citizenship’ for undocumented immigrants

jself@thestate.comApril 18, 2013 

Three out of four South Carolinians support immigration reforms that include giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, according to a Winthrop University poll released Wednesday.

The results to that poll question – asked exclusively for The State – were nearly the same for registered voters who identified themselves as Republicans and Democrats. According to the poll, 77 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Democrats support an immigration reform plan that is line with a much-anticipated proposal from the U.S. Senate’s “Gang of Eight.”

That group of eight U.S. senators put forward a reform plan Wednesday that would offer undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship – but one that would take more than a decade, and require the payment of fines and back taxes.

“It’s refreshing to know that many (self-identified) Republicans support the path to citizenship,” said Chip Felkel, a longtime S.C. GOP consultant in Greenville.

Republican touting of the reform plan in recent weeks could help explain the state’s 3-to-1 support for it, said Winthrop Poll director and political scientist Scott Huffmon.

The poll asked respondents whether they would support or oppose a “path to citizenship” as part of larger immigration reform.

Winthrop pollsters asked respondents whether they would support giving legal, documented immigrants priority over illegal immigrants in applying for citizenship, requiring immigrants seeking citizenship to take English proficiency exams, ensuring immigrants are paying taxes and imposing a fine for those who are here illegally.

According to the poll, about 17 percent of self-described S.C. Republicans or GOP-leaning registered voters oppose that plan, compared with about 14 percent of self-described Democrats or Democratic-leaning registered voters.

The question asked was based on a plan that U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from Seneca, discussed in Columbia last month, Huffmon said.

Graham is a member of the Senate “Gang of Eight,” which released its immigration proposal Wednesday. The 844-page bill includes the provisions asked about in the poll.

The bill also would tighten security along the U.S.-Mexico border, put in place new requirements for employers to check employees’ legal status, establish a “green card” – or work permit – program for farm workers, and create more opportunities for foreign entrepreneurs and immigrants with backgrounds in the sciences to immigrate to the United States.

Under the Senate bill, the pathway to citizenship for undocumented aliens would take more than a decade and require payment of fines and any back taxes owed.

Opposition not waning

Some S.C. conservatives have rebuked Graham in the past for his support of immigration reforms that, they say, would offer undocumented immigrants “amnesty,” or forgiveness for coming into the country illegally.

That opposition still exists, says Roan Garcia-Quintana, director of Americans Have Had Enough, a group that has opposed other immigration plans that offer a pathway to citizenship.

The S.C. resident, a Cuban immigrant, said he is “totally opposed” to a pathway to citizenship, doubting any plan to punish undocumented immigrants now in the country, or hold them accountable, will be enforced.

According to the poll question, the plan “sounds pretty nice, that they’re going to punish everybody and put them in the back of the line,” Garcia-Quintana said. “But the reality will be that amnesty will be granted immediately.”

Republicans the messenger

South Carolinians’ show of support for a path to citizenship could be the result of Republicans touting the plan recently.

In the past, the idea of giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship has been a Democratic idea, less popular among hard-line conservatives. However, Republicans were stung by their party’s poor showing among minority voters in November’s presidential election. And, in recent weeks, GOP leaders, including Graham and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, have been touting the reform plan, signaling it is “approved by Republicans,” Huffmon said.

Some evangelical religious leaders also have endorsed immigration reform.

Democrats’ slightly lower enthusiasm could be due to the “punitive” measures mentioned in the poll – that undocumented immigrants would be fined for being in the country illegally and would have to pass English-proficiency exams, for example – ideas that are less popular among Democrats, Huffmon said.

The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent, was conducted between April 6 and Sunday; 1,069 adults living in South Carolina participated.

McClatchy’s Washington bureau contributed to this report. Reach Self at (803)771-8658.

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