What should be done about illegal immigrant children?

July 25, 2014, 9:19 AM GMT+0

Public opinion is divided on whether or not the children crossing the border should be deported, or if they even have anywhere safe to return to

Americans worry about immigration. And they believe the recent influx of children across the Mexican border is a very serious problem. But the latest Economist/YouGov Poll finds a country divided in perceptions of the migrant children’s motivations, as well as what should be done with them.

Just about as many describe immigration as a very serious problem as say that about the rush of unaccompanied minors across the border. Concern crosses political and regional boundaries, although there is more concern among Republicans than among Democrats. For 9% of Americans, it is the country’s most important issue, behind only the economy and Social Security, and tied with health care. For Republicans, immigration ranks only below the economy in importance.

But the immigration issue is different in different parts of the country. Even though worry about immigration in general is pretty much the same in all regions, people in the South and West express more concern about the situation in their local communities.

The fact that is it children crossing the border clearly divides the country. While most say they have at least some sympathy for the children, a majority of Republicans reports little or no sympathy. More than three in four Hispanics say they are sympathetic, and a majority of Hispanics report “a lot” of sympathy for the children.

That reflects the large differences in these groups in how they judge the children and their motivations in coming to the United States. Overall the country is closely divided on whether the children now coming to the United States illegally are fleeing unsafe situations in their home country or have safe homes but would just rather live in the United States. Republicans see the children as coming from safe places; Hispanics, and a plurality of the public overall, do not.

There is more agreement on why the surge is taking place now. Although crime has been cited as the major reason for the surge, most Americans don’t agree. They think that increase is due more to the perception that there will be amnesty for underage children than think the current increase comes from a rise in violent crime in Central America. While the feeling that the immigrants expect amnesty is highest among Republicans, 51% of Hispanics and 44% of Democrats also believe that is the major driver of child immigration.

There is no consensus when Americans are asked for a solution. Slightly more would deport the children as soon as possible as would let them stay in the U.S. until they have a safe place to return. But only 10% would send them only to the Mexican border, the place where they crossed into the United States. There is more support for sending them back to their families in their home countries, whether or not they will be safe there.

Those who would let the children stay in the United States until it is certain they have a safe place to return to are more likely to be younger, to be Democrats, and to be Hispanic. Women are evenly divided about what should be done, while men, by a ten point margin, favor deportation. Only 11% would let the children say in the United States (one in five Democrats and one in five Hispanics would).

But until the children are returned to their home countries, whenever that happens, they will need to be housed. Many have been moved to locations further from the border. In some of those places they have been met by protests. As many people in the poll oppose moving them from the border areas as favor that move.

And as many would oppose having the children housed in their own states as would support that move. Those in the Northeast and in the West are most willing (about half in those regions are willing, while a third are not).

The approval rating of the President on immigration, like his approval ratings on many other issues, is negative. A majority disapproves, and only a third approve. But the evaluation of the President is even worse among those who would deport the child migrants as soon as possible: only 16% in that group approve of how Barack Obama is handling immigration. Those who want the children to stay until they can be returned safely approve of the President’s performance.

Image: Getty

Full results can be found here.

Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.