A new poll finds most Americans strongly support an immigration reform plan with a path to citizenship for the nation’s undocumented. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Poll: 4 out of 5 Americans support a path to citizenship

Four out of five Americans say they would support a plan which includes a path to citizenship, according to a new poll conducted by bipartisan researchers.  In fact, 87 percent of over 1,000 people polled prefer undocumented immigrants to be allowed a path to citizenship, compared to only 7 percent who prefer legal status without citizenship.

“We have firmly believed that fixing the broken immigration system is not just a Latino or immigrant priority but a priority for the American people, and we wanted to test that theory,” said Eliseo Medina, Secretary/Treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) , one of the groups who commissioned the poll, along with the National Immigration Forum and America’s Voice, two organizations which support immigration reform.   “This poll exceeded all my expectations; I am amazed at the level of support,” Medina said.  The Latino labor leaders added the results clearly demonstrate that immigration reform is not the “third rail” for politicians but a net positive, as shown by the numbers of voters who supported Obama.  “Voters are way ahead of Congress on this issue.”

Jeb Bush, Jr. the son of Florida Governor Jeb Bush and a member of the National Immigration Forum Board, said this poll should help give “political cover” for Republicans in Congress to rally behind reform. “Now is the time for leaders to take cues from the public.”

The poll found 77 percent of Americans, including  76 percent of conservative Republicans, would support a 4-point reform plan consisting of increased border security, employer verification, an earned pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and immigration levels based on worker needs.  Sixty four percent of those polled preferred to tackle border enforcement and a legal pathway for those who are here illegally at the same time, with only 31 percent say border security should come first.

“I think the pollsters went to great lengths to show the American public wants the issue of immigration resolved and off the table- it is not a Latino-specific issue,” says political scientist Sylvia Manzano.

The finding that almost nine out of 10 American favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who registering for legal status, learn English and pay taxes shows Americans are not “comfortable” with the idea of a permanent class of non-citizens, said the pollsters.  Strong support for earned citizenship could give a boost to Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s recent proposal, which includes a pathway for undocumented immigrants in which they would first earn a green card and then an eventual pathway to citizenship.

RELATED: Exclusive-Sen. Marco Rubio outlines his immigration reform plan

Many Republicans – even Senator Rubio in the past – have referred to a citizenship pathway for undocumented immigrants as “amnesty.”  Yet in this poll, 66 percent of Americans said immigration reform is about accountability – especially the part requiring payment of back taxes as a condition for legalization – and did not consider it amnesty.

Jeb Bush Jr. remarked today that these findings show Rubio’s proposal, which is also backed by other Republican leaders such as former vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, is a huge opportunity for the Senator to lead his party.  “It can provide a cover of fire for some members of Congress,” said Bush, Jr.

The results of the poll come at a time of high expectations among many Latinos who had expressed immigration reform as one of the top priorities during the presidential campaign. The Obama Administration and Democratic leaders have said reform is at the top of the agenda, but the question has been whether there would be enough Republican support to get legislation passed.

America’s Voice Frank Sharry said he and other reform advocates would take these poll findings to Congress.

Manzano says though many in the Republican party leadership have a pretty good sense of the long-term trajectory for the party and the need to tackle reform, these findings make pretty clear to those legislators on the fence how Americans stand on the need to rebuild the current immigration system.

Although President Obama is about to be inaugurated for a second term, “some GOP legislators might be thinking 2016,” says Manzano. “And the candidate who gets to say, ‘I helped take the immigration issue off the table’ will be in a much better position.”

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