Americans Want to Treat Migrant Children as Refugees, Poll Says

Immigrants who have been caught crossing the border illegally are held inside the McAllen Border Patrol Station in McAllen, Texas July 15, 2014. Rick Loomis/Pool/Reuters

Most Americans believe that children arriving from Central America should be treated as refugees—not illegal immigrants—and offered shelter while authorities determine if they are allowed to stay or are to be deported, according to a poll released Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.

While 69 percent of those surveyed believe the children should be allowed to stay in the United States if authorities determine that it is unsafe for them to return to their home countries, 27 percent said the children should be deported to their home countries. Forty-two percent of Americans believe that immigrants are a burden on the country because they take jobs, housing and health care belonging to them, up from 35 percent in the week ending July 6, according to the survey.

"They are in tension but not inconsistent with one another," said Robert P. Jones, chief executive officer of the institute, explaining that, while Americans believe the right thing to do is to treat children fleeing violence as refugees, an increasing number of them also harbor concerns that doing so will be a burden to the country.

Since October 1, 2013, more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained crossing the border, fleeing widespread violence and buoyed by rumors of an amnesty. Warehouses and military bases were quickly transformed into immigration shelters, which struggled to cope with the surge. President Barack Obama referred to these events as an urgent humanitarian situation and enlisted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate the government response.

Earlier this month, Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds. With a deeply divided Congress, it is unclear if the funds will be released. President Obama said he would take executive action on immigration legislation in June if Congress hadn't acted. On Friday, Obama met with the presidents of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where the majority of children hail from, to discuss the crisis and hear the Central American leaders' demands.

Nearly half of Americans have heard a lot about the Central American children arriving in the U.S., according to the poll. Of those surveyed, 43 percent said the situation is a serious problem but not a crisis, while 36 percent said the influx of Central American minors is a crisis.

Of those surveyed, 71 percent said children from Central America awaiting for their cases to be processed should be released to the care of relatives or churches.

More than half of Republicans polled said these children should be treated as refugees, though 42 percent said the children should be treated as illegal immigrants. Again, a majority of Republicans favored offering support to unaccompanied children while their cases were reviewed, but 39 percent said these children should be deported immediately.

Majorities in major religious groups, including white evangelical Protestants and Catholics, said the government should provide unaccompanied minors shelter and support while their cases were processed.

"It's unusual to find in the country today an issue where…both Republicans and Democrats [are] on the same side of an issue, and all major religious groups [are] on the same side of the issue, and this is one of them," said Jones.

The poll, which had a margin of error plus or minus three percentage points, included bilingual telephone interviews with 1,026 adults between July 23 and July 27. Jones said the institute, which focuses research on the role of religious values in public life, would continue conducting immigration-related surveys regularly through the end of the year.