Legal Immigrants Concerned by Tenor of Immigration Debate

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A new poll representing the views of America's legal immigrants reveals that the majority of them are alarmed at what they perceive to be a growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. They are also concerned that the immigration overhaul debate is often based on misinformation.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Cities around the country have seen massive protests against proposed legislation cracking down on illegal immigrants. Now, a new pole finds that legal immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Europe are supportive of illegal immigrants. From Los Angeles, NPR's Mandalit del Barco has more.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO reporting:

The telephone poll surveyed 800 legal immigrants, legal residents, and U.S. citizens across the country, most of them registered voters. Like 76 percent of the Latin American immigrants in the survey, George Flattis(ph) agrees there's a growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the country, which he says can be seen in the current political debate over immigration.

Mr. GEORGE SUAREZ (Legal Immigrant): They have been alarming the people. They're calling them criminals.

DEL BARCO: That's what the politicians say.

Mr. SUAREZ: That's what politicians say. They're breaking the law. Being illegal in this country, that's breaking the law. That's why you have quite a few protests in the last week, you know, half a million here in Los Angeles Saturday.

DEL BARCO: Suarez works in Manhattan Beach, California, and has been a U.S. citizen since 1963. Like 90 percent of the Latin Americans polled, Suarez says he believes undocumented workers are not taking jobs away from legal residents and citizens, just doing work no one else wants. And Suarez told the pollsters he does not favor laws that would deport or arrest illegal immigrants, charge them with felonies, or deny their children U.S. citizenship.

Suarez says his father was once a brasero, a temporary worker brought in from Mexico to work on the railroads in the 1930s. Now, Suarez favors legislation that would grant undocumented immigrants temporary work permits and a path to citizenship.

Mr. SUAREZ: I know they're good people. As long as they have a job and pay taxes, they should give these people a residency for the work permit. Then three, five years from now they can probably get a green card.

DEL BARCO: That's what the McCain-Kennedy bill would do. In the poll, 62 percent of African and European immigrants also support the legislation. So did 51 percent of Asian immigrants. Only a fifth of all the legal immigrants surveyed supported President Bush's immigration proposal to grant temporary work visas, only if they return to their home countries.

Sandy Close is executive director of New American Media, which co-sponsored the poll. She says this is the first time legal immigrants have been surveyed on immigration legislation.

Ms. SANDY CLOSE (Executive Director, New American Media): They're alarmed by what they feel is the substance and tone of the debate, creating an anti- immigrant sentiment that was on the rise. And many of them told the pollsters that they had been personally impacted.

Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies): It was clearly a very biased poll.

DEL BARCO: Mark Krikorian is the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think-tank that supports tighter controls on immigration. He says the poll was worded with a pro-immigrant slant. Even so, he says the results were not that surprising.

Mr. KRIKORIAN: Legal immigrants have family members and acquaintances who are illegal aliens, so there's naturally going to be a reluctance to seem too hard nose with regard to illegal immigration. But even with the biased questions, 27 percent of legal immigrants wanted a wall on the border. Twenty-six percent wanted to fine employers and prosecute religious groups that help illegal aliens.

DEL BARCO: But the among the majority, who told the pollsters they don't agree with cracking down on immigration, was Vladimir Litvinoff, who lives in Orange County, California. The 60-year-old Russian immigrant and U.S. citizen has been in this country for more than ten years.

Mr. VLADIMIR LITVINOFF (Russian Immigrant): I lived in the Soviet Union, and the borders were very, very tight. It's completely crazy for me to see the United States in this kind of role. You need the kind of totalitarian regime inside the country to effectively close the border. I definitely don't agree.

DEL BARCO: And that, says Litvinoff, is why he's living in the U.S., not Russia anymore.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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