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Poll: Most New Mexicans Believe Illegal Immigration Is a Problem

By Leslie Linthicum
Copyright 2005 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    New Mexico has a split personality when it comes to illegal immigrants. Most New Mexicans believe illegal immigration is a serious or somewhat serious problem, and they don't want illegal immigrants to receive many of the benefits often tied to citizenship, such as food stamps, driver's licenses, college scholarships and free health care for their children.
    Yet a majority favor giving illegal immigrants emergency room care and a free public education.
    Most New Mexicans believe illegal immigration hurts the state's economy. Yet most would like to see undocumented workers have a shot at becoming legal residents.
    Those are a few of the wrinkles in a statewide Journal poll on immigration conducted earlier this month by Research & Polling Inc.
    "It could have gone, 'They're illegal, kick them out.' '' said pollster Brian Sanderoff. "But that's not New Mexico."
Opinions split
    Illegal immigration— an issue that sparked a state of emergency being declared in southern New Mexico in August and brought civilian patrols to our border this month— is by no means a matter that finds all New Mexicans on the same page.
    The poll found that although most New Mexicans feel illegal immigration hurts the economy, most surveyed didn't want private citizens to patrol U.S. borders to turn illegal immigrants away.
    The poll also found differences of opinion between Hispanics and Anglos, Democrats and Republicans, the young and the old, and the southern and the northern parts of the state.
    That would not come as a surprise to Journal reporters who have spent the past few months traveling the state and talking to people about illegal immigration— from its effects on communities to health care, education, court systems and the economy— for this series, "The Border and Beyond," which kicks off today.
    Reporters found New Mexico public policy uniquely accommodating to illegal immigrants and personal opinions that ran the gamut from welcoming to unwelcoming.
    Listen to the opposite views of these two New Mexicans, Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a Santa Fe group that advocates for undocumented immigrants, and Bob Wright, a Eunice gas worker who is head of the Minuteman Defense Corps in New Mexico.
    Diaz regards illegal immigrants as contributors to the economy who give as much as they take, if not more, and should be helped along, not hindered.
    "People have been here for years and years. People have purchased cars and in many cases homes and in some cases businesses," Diaz said. "It's easy to say, 'OK, uproot yourself. Go home.' But it's not that easy in real life. (Their attitude is) 'I'm sorry, my life is here. My kids are here. My family is here.' ''
    Wright looks at the other side of the equation and feels a creeping threat.
    "This isn't about racism. We've lived in a culture that is so blended our entire lives. When you grow up here, you play with Hispanic kids, you date Hispanics and you marry Hispanics," Wright said. "It's changing. I see a polarization instead of additional blending. These people are coming here to suck up what they can get, and they don't come here to become Americans. In my opinion, it's a coarsening of the culture."
Evaluating the problem
    It's no wonder immigration is an issue that evokes strong opinions here. The state has 180 miles of international border and is one of the busiest crossing points in the nation.
    National immigration studies place the illegal immigrant population in New Mexico between 50,000 and 65,000. On the low end of the state's illegal immigrant population estimates is the federal government's from 2000 that there are about 39,000.
    The Journal's polling company, Research & Polling Inc., surveyed 400 registered voters across New Mexico by phone between Oct. 13 and Oct. 16 to gauge opinions about immigration. The margin of error for the poll was plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
    Thirty-four percent of those polled characterized illegal immigration in New Mexico as causing "very serious" problems and 37 percent said it caused "somewhat serious" problems. Only 24 percent said it caused a "minor problems" or "no problems at all."
    More believed it was a very serious problem for the nation than for New Mexico.
    Fifty percent said illegal immigration is a serious problem in the United States, while 26 percent said it was somewhat serious. (By comparison, a Fox News poll of registered voters nationwide found 63 percent of Americans said illegal immigration was a "serious" problem.)
    The Journal poll showed some significant differences on that question among people of different ethnicities, political party affiliation, age and income.
    Hispanics, for example, were much more likely than Anglos (10 percent compared to 4 percent) to say illegal immigration posed no problems at all in New Mexico. Democrats and Republicans also differed greatly, with 10 percent of Democrats and only 1 percent of Republicans saying it was no problem here.
    Along age and income lines, people 65 and older (44 percent) and with household income below $40,000 (37 percent) were most likely to say it poses a very serious problem.
    "People in lower incomes are threatened by job availability and a perceived lowering of the wage scale," said Sanderoff, president of Research & Polling.
    On the issue of the economy and illegal immigration, 53 percent said illegal immigrants hurt the economy, 24 percent said they help the economy, 8 percent said they had no impact and 8 percent said they felt they both hurt and help.
    Those most likely to say illegal immigrants hurt the economy were people with some college but less than a four-year degree (65 percent) and those in households making $30,000 to $40,000 (68 percent).
    And it found that New Mexicans who live along the border— and face the brunt of sharing services and jobs with immigrants— are more tolerant than those elsewhere in the state.
    While 60 percent of those in the north-central part of the state said illegal immigration hurts the economy, only 40 percent of those surveyed in the southern part of the state felt that way.
    Clare May, police chief of Columbus, ground zero for illegal immigration in New Mexico, typifies the complicated attitudes of some people who live and work along the border.
    "There are good people that live there who want to come here and work for decent wages," May says. "We need to protect our borders. We don't want terrorists coming through. But you've got families that are being kept apart. For honest, legitimate people, I don't know what the answer is. I know that if we don't address it, people are going to keep dying."
Contrasts revealed
    Respondents were also asked which of three issues related to illegal immigration concerned them the most.
    Thirty-four percent said they were most concerned about cost in terms of social services, 24 percent said terrorism and 18 percent said concern that illegal immigrants will take jobs away from citizens and drive wages down by accepting lower pay. Seventeen percent were concerned about all three and 5 percent said none of the above.
    One of the more interesting aspects in the survey results was the relation between opposition to illegal immigration and favoring giving illegal immigrants legal status to work and live here, Sanderoff said.
    Fifty-nine percent of New Mexicans favor a temporary worker program while 36 percent oppose it and 5 percent were undecided.
    The poll revealed another contrast: one between public policy and public opinion.
    For example, since 2003 almost anyone of driving age in New Mexico, regardless of their legal status in the country, has been eligible to receive a New Mexico driver's license. Yet 64 percent of those polled opposed allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.
    Another example: Beginning this year, New Mexico allows some illegal immigrant students to pay in-state college tuition and be eligible for the lottery scholarship. But 72 percent of those polled disagreed with that policy.
    The poll also found these results:
  • Fifty-one percent were in favor and 39 percent were opposed to using the U.S. military to stop illegal immigrants at the border.
  • On allowing private citizen groups (like the Minutemen) to do the same thing, 54 percent were opposed and 40 percent were in favor.
  • New Mexicans were in favor of allowing illegal immigrants and their children medical care at emergency rooms (72 percent) and public school education (54 percent). But they opposed giving illegal immigrants food stamps (68 percent) and Medicaid (62 percent).
  • New Mexicans who responded to the poll seemed to not have a clear idea of actions taken by Gov. Bill Richardson to address illegal immigration, which included declaring a state of emergency, asking the Mexican government to tear down buildings where border jumpers wait to cross and spending $1.75 million to beef up border security. He has also signed the bill allowing in-state tuition and lottery scholarships for some illegal immigrant students.
        The poll asked: Do you support or oppose the policies and actions that Gov. Richardson has taken to address illegal immigration in New Mexico?
        Forty-three percent said they had mixed feelings, didn't know, were undecided or wouldn't say. Thirty-three percent supported them while 23 percent opposed them.
        When asked why they answered the way they did, 57 percent said they didn't know or wouldn't say or had "no reason in particular."