Politics & Government

California voters back shelter for young immigrants

Young immigrants who have poured into the United States should remain and be cared for while their ultimate fate is settled, a majority of California voters said in response to a new Field Poll.

The unprecedented swell of minors from Central America has become the most acute immigration crisis of President Barack Obama’s tenure, fueling heated debate and pledges to action from Washington to Sacramento. It has also deepened fault lines on a sensitive issue, with protesters decrying a surge of illegal immigration while advocates urge compassion in addressing what they call a humanitarian issue.

Among California voters, the latter view wins out. More than half of surveyed voters, 58 percent, favored extending “shelter and support” to immigrant minors until their cases are resolved, easily outpacing the 33 percent who said the immigrants should be deported immediately. Democrats and independents overwhelmingly chose the first option, while Republicans emphasized deportation by a 54-35 margin.

“Californians appear to be quite sympathetic to the plight of the unaccompanied children who are in increasing numbers entering the U.S. illegally from Central America,” said Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo. “It is a unique kind of issue,” distinct from the overall immigration debate.

Many of the young immigrants making the perilous crossing have recounted stories of extreme violence in their home countries. Respondents appear to have been swayed by those circumstances.

“I feel that if these children are being told by their parents or families there’s a better, safer place for them, we can’t really blame the children,” said Heather Epps, a 35-year-old Bakersfield resident without a registered party preference. “If they’re claiming asylum because it’s so violent where they live, then from a human standpoint it would be cruel to send them back into that situation.”

While immigration is largely a federal issue, California has waded in on the cascade of young immigrants. With the blessing of Gov. Jerry Brown, state lawmakers advanced legislation that would allocate $3 million for legal help and bolster the odds that young immigrants will win legal status.

Obama has sought a tenuous balance on immigration. He has alienated immigration advocates by deporting record numbers of immigrants while infuriating anti-amnesty conservatives by shielding from deportation some in the country illegally and advocating a route to legal status for millions of others.

With immigration legislation supported by Obama stalled in Congress, the president has vowed to act unilaterally. California voters support his desire to do so, particularly when it comes to the flood of young immigrants.

A majority of Field Poll respondents, 55 percent, said Obama should issue an executive order dealing with the immigrant minors absent congressional action. A substantially smaller margin but still a plurality, 46 percent, said they support a broader executive order affecting the nation’s estimated population of 11 million undocumented immigrants if Congress does not act.

“I don’t believe that the inability or inactivity on the part of Congress warrants the punishment of innocents,” said Lesa Rasmussen, a 64-year-old registered Democrat and resident of Atwater.

Once again, party identification influenced sharply differing responses. Three-quarters of Democrats said Obama should create his own policy for the immigrant minors, against 54 percent of independents and just a quarter of Republicans. Responses to the question of broader executive action flipped depending on party, with Democrats backing the notion 65-18 and Republicans rejecting it 65-21. A plurality of independents (42 percent) assented.

Respondents skeptical of Obama acting alone said immigration is too complex an issue for the president to circumvent Congress.

“I believe that the president should go through the standard channels,” said Sandi Cik, a 71-year-old retiree living in Citrus Heights. “We need to think as a government, not as one person.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee