What Americans Want to Do With Undocumented Workers

INSIGHTS :  Aug. 31, 2015

Andrew Keatts | August 31, 2015No matter how you slice it, surveys show preference for a path to citizenship.

People protesting with signs

No matter how you slice it, surveys show preference for a path to citizenship.

The discussion in the early stages of the Republican presidential primary has been dominated – thanks in no small part to front-runner Donald Trump – by debate over what to do with immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

It’s led to calls for rescinding birthright citizenship as well as mass deportations.

But a Kinder Institute for Urban Research study shows there isn’t much support among Americans for that sort of massive government action.

A super majority of Americans – 71 percent – supports providing a legal path to citizenship for immigrants already in the U.S. who are here illegally, the study found.

The Study

As part of its Portraits of American Life study, researchers gathered a representative sample of 1,300 adult Americans for 75-minute interviews, from April through September of 2012.

Researchers asked: “Should most illegal immigrants working in the United States be offered a chance to apply for legal status, be sent back to the country they came from, or be allowed to stay in the U.S. and remain illegally?”

But the researchers sliced the question in multiple ways – using “illegal aliens” for half of respondents, and “illegal immigrants” for the other half. They wanted to see if the different language affected responses. They also examined whether support for a pathway to citizenship broke down along partisan or demographic lines.

“Perhaps surprisingly, the responses are largely consistent across political and ideological lines,” the researchers wrote.

The Findings

First, researchers broke their findings into three simple groups – Democrats, Republicans and Independents. A strong majority from all groups supported a path to legal status.

Chart gauging immigration reform

If you break that down even further within the two political parties, accounting for how strongly respondents identify with each party, the results don’t change very much at all either.


Women believe more strongly than men in providing a pathway to citizenship, but large majorities of both support the concept.


And strong majorities among every racial group surveyed strongly support a pathway to citizenship as well. At 68 percent, white Americans have the lowest support level.


“Without exception, the majority of Americans are in favor of offering illegal immigrants a path toward legal status, rather than having them returned to their nations of origin or remaining in the U.S. illegally,” the researchers wrote. “What is more, in our experimental design, it did not matter whether respondents heard ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘illegal aliens.’ Always, the majority response was the same: favor a path to legal status.”

The Implications

Researchers said they intended for their study to inform policymakers and the larger debate surrounding immigration.

The results were unequivocal and overwhelming. Large percentages of the country – regardless of political party, ethnicity or gender – favored a solution that provides a legal pathway to citizenship for current undocumented immigrants.

Trump, invoking the phrase made popular by Richard Nixon, recently said his message resonates with the “silent majority” of Americans. The study, however, suggests otherwise: calls for mass deportations only represent the views of a vocal minority.

What Should Be Done With Illegal Immigrants? The Views of Americans | Renita Miller and Michael O. Emerson, Kinder Institute for Urban Research; Rice University, June 19, 2013.

Andrew Keatts


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