SACRAMENTO — Nine in 10 California voters say they support allowing illegal immigrants who have been in the country for several years to stay and become citizens if they have a job, learn English and pay any back taxes they may owe, according to a Field Poll released Friday.
The poll, which comes as Congress prepares to debate federal immigration reform, also found that a majority of voters support allowing residents who are in the U.S. illegally to get California driver's licenses, a reversal from previous surveys.
Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, has proposed legislation this year that would allow the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue licenses to any resident who can show they pay taxes, regardless of their immigration status. Former state Sen. Gil Cedillo, a Democrat, tried for more than a decade to make such a change, but his efforts either did not make it through the Legislature or were vetoed by previous governors.
The Legislature took a partial step last year when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill by Cedillo that allows some young illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Those immigrants would have to be eligible for work permits under a new federal deferred-action policy.
While the poll found voters support loosening restrictions on some illegal immigrants, it also found that two-thirds favor boosting the number of federal agents patrolling the border with Mexico. Most also support stringent penalties for employers who hire illegal workers.
Three-quarters of those surveyed said they supported adding significantly more visas for immigrants with engineering or other advanced degrees, creating temporary worker programs and allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition for college as they do if they attend for three years and graduate from a California high school.
Under a law that took effect this year, low-income illegal immigrant students who graduate from a California high school are eligible to receive Cal Grants to attend college and may apply for fee waivers in the community college system if they show they are in the process of applying to become legal residents.
Congress is in the midst of bipartisan negotiations over immigration reform, and the Obama administration is drafting backup legislation as a way to prompt action on the issue.
The debate in Washington is likely to include providing a pathway to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S., tightening border security, cracking down on businesses that employ illegal workers and strengthening the legal immigration system.
The Field Poll interviewed 834 registered voters by telephone Feb. 5-17. The poll has a sampling error margin of plus or minus 5 percentage points.