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NBC/WSJ poll: Strong majority backs citizenship for undocumented immigrants

With a bipartisan group of senators expected to unveil immigration-reform legislation in the next few days, a brand-new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that nearly two-thirds of Americans – including eight-in-10 Latinos – support giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

A slight majority of Republican respondents oppose this path, possibly foreshadowing the resistance which any comprehensive immigration reform bill might receive, especially in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

But when Republicans hear that a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants includes paying fines and back taxes, almost three-quarters of them support the idea.

What’s more, a majority of the public – for the first time in the poll – agrees with the statement that immigration strengthens the nation, reflecting a shift in attitude on this issue. 

Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with the Democratic firm Hart Research Associates, says that this change in sentiment on immigration “speaks to something potent,” particularly given the economic struggles of the past five years.

"These more positive attitudes provide more leeway for lawmakers to build support for change on this issue," McInturff adds.

View the poll results here

On other matters, the poll shows a majority of the public favors stricter gun laws, President Barack Obama’s approval rating falling below 50 percent for the first time since Oct. 2012, and fewer than two-in-10 Americans saying the automatic budget cuts known as “the sequester” have significantly affected them.

Immigration – a strength or weakness?
A majority (54 percent) agrees with the statement that immigration adds to the nation’s character and strengthens it by bringing diversity and talent to the country.

Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

Tens of thousands of immigration reform supporters march in the "Rally for Citizenship" on the West Lawn of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on April 10, 2013.

In a 2010 NBC/WSJ survey, fewer than half of respondents agreed with that statement, and in 2005, a plurality said that immigration weakened the nation.

Additionally, the Democratic Party holds a 7-point advantage over the Republican Party on the question of which party does a better job in dealing with immigration.

Among an oversample of Latino respondents, the Democratic edge increases to 26 points.

Regarding the current legislative debate over immigration, 64 percent of respondents say they favor allowing undocumented immigrants to have the opportunity to become legal American citizens.

That includes 82 percent of Latinos, 80 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of political independents supporting a path to citizenship.

But 51 percent of Republicans oppose it, versus 47 percent who back it.

Yet when told that the pathway to citizenship would require paying fines and back taxes, as well as passing a security-background check, support grows – with 76 percent of total respondents, and 73 percent of Republicans backing the path.

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a member of the Gang of Eight immigration reform group, joins The Daily Rundown to talk about immigration reform talks, the budget battle taking place on The Hill, North Korea and touches on the investigation regarding Dr. Salomon Melgen.

That pathway to citizenship is the heart of a comprehensive immigration reform proposal that the so-called “Gang of Eight” senators – including Democrats Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin and Republicans John McCain and Marco Rubio – are drafting and plan to introduce in the next few days.

The proposal also calls for strengthening the U.S.-Mexico border, tying that security to establishing the path to citizenship and expanding legal immigration.

A majority of all respondents (51 percent) believe undocumented immigrants should be eligible for citizenship five years after application. Just 12 percent say the eligibility should occur after 10 years, and only 18 percent believe citizenship should be immediate.

On border security, nearly two-thirds of Americans (63 percent) think the U.S.-Mexico border is “mostly” or “totally” not secure, compared with a smaller percentage of Latino respondents (49 percent) who believe that.

55 percent favor stricter gun laws
In addition to immigration, Congress is grappling with the issue of gun control, with the Senate expected to vote on Thursday whether to begin debate on a Democratic-backed measure requiring background checks for most gun sales.

NBC's Luke Russert breaks down the key components of the bipartisan gun control bill.

According to the poll, 55 percent favor stricter laws covering the sale of firearms.

That’s down 6 points from the Feb. 2013 NBC/WSJ poll – conducted after Obama’s State of the Union address that contained a call to action on gun control – but it’s essentially unchanged from the Jan. 2013 poll.

Yet there’s a wide political divide to these numbers: 82 percent of Democrats favor stricter gun laws, while just 27 percent of Republicans do.

Obama’s approval rating drops to 47 percent
Despite majorities backing the broad outlines of his legislative priorities on immigration and guns, President Obama confronts a pessimistic public and declining poll numbers.

Only 31 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction – a decline of 10 points since Dec. 2012.

His overall job-approval rating stands at 47 percent, which is down 3 points since February and which represents the first time he’s been below 50 percent since just before the 2012 election.

In addition, 47 percent approve of the president’s economic handling (up three points from February), and 46 percent approve of his handling of foreign policy (down six from Dec. 2012).

Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research says that the public’s sour attitude, particularly on the economy, has “dragged down” Obama’s numbers.

Sequester’s limited impact (so far)
Lastly, the NBC/WSJ poll finds that only a combined 16 percent of Americans say the automatic across-the-board budget cuts that went into effect earlier in the year have impacted them either “a great deal” or “quite a bit.”

By comparison, a whopping 75 percent say the cuts to military and non-military programs have affected them “just some” or “not much.”

But a plurality of respondents – 47 percent – believe the cuts will mostly harm the economy, versus 30 percent who say they won’t have an impact.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted of 1,000 adults (including 300 cell phone-only respondents) from April 5-8, and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.