Florida voters, particularly in immigrant-rich pockets of South and Central Florida, overwhelmingly say they support comprehensive immigration reform that would give people living in the state illegally a pathway to citizenship, according to a new Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald/Bay News 9 poll.
Across the state, 66 percent of voters support immigration reform that allows people living in the United States without legal status to stay and apply for citizenship. Another 28 percent oppose it, and 6 percent are undecided.
"Most voters here support some sort of way to solve the problem," said Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, the nonpartisan, Jacksonville-based company that conducted the poll for the Florida media organizations.
Florida voters also favor President Barack Obama's recent move to protect some younger illegal immigrants — the so-called DREAM Act kids — from being deported. They back the plan 53 to 42 percent, with 5 percent of potential voters undecided.
Joe Marcos, 50, an electrical contractor from Miami, says the administration should toughen the border against illegal immigration and supports deporting immigrants who have committed crimes.
But Marcos, a longtime Republican voter who is originally from Cuba, opposes deporting young people who were brought into the country illegally by their parents. They deserve a chance to stay, he said in a followup interview to the poll.
"If a kid is brought here by his parents, I just don't think it's right to deport them," Marcos said. "It's just not right. We need laws to help those kids and their parents to stay in the country."
Albert Sensley, 79, a retired Army intelligence officer from North Port who has lived in Florida since 1994, said he supports strong borders. But Sensley, an independent voter, says he likes the president's recent move to allow young people to stay. Shaping his views: his wife's family is from Honduras.
"There's no reason to punish people who are already here," Sensley said. "A lot of them were born here. If they were fortunate enough to get in this country, they're here. Some of the best Americans we have are people who come over to this country."
Coker said that support for the president's action, while broad, may be muted by the way Obama did it. The administration's directive bypassed Congress, which has failed to muster the votes to pass the DREAM Act. It allows young illegal immigrants who were raised in the United States to remain for two years under a deferred deportation. Unlike the proposed DREAM Act supported by Democrats, the administrative action does not provide a path to citizenship for the young people.
Other national polls have also shown wide support for allowing young people to stay in the United States — only underscoring how Obama has taken the lead over Republicans on an issue that is seen as a measure of respect for the wider Hispanic community.
Both Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney are actively seeking Hispanic voters, and although Obama leads Romney among those voters in most polls, he must shore up his support among Latino voters to win in November. Romney doesn't need to outright win over Hispanic voters, but he does need to peel away enough of the critical voting bloc to compete in the swing states of Florida, Nevada and Colorado.
A poll conducted by Latino Decisions in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Virginia found that Hispanic voters were more enthusiastic about Obama after his announcement about DREAM Act-eligible young people. That marked an important change, since some Hispanic voters have been disheartened by the Obama administration's aggressive deportation policies toward other undocumented immigrants.
The politics of immigration in Florida are often more nuanced because most Hispanic voters in the state are Cuban-Americans or Puerto Ricans. Most Cuban immigrants came to the country legally; Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
"I don't think it's the hot, hot issue that some people think it is because they don't really understand Florida versus Arizona versus Texas," Coker said. "Most Hispanics that come here come here on an airplane — or maybe a boat, a big boat. They're not sneaking across the Rio Grande or trying to walk across the desert to get here. They pretty much come in, they're welcomed and they assimilate very quickly. I don't think you've got that hostility that you might have in Arizona where illegal immigrants are being associated with crime and drugs and all kinds of other negative things."
The Mason-Dixon poll also found Florida voters support giving police the right to check the citizenship of people who are stopped for a violation or who have committed a crime, the subject of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision based on a challenge to an Arizona law. It had support from 53 percent of voters; 40 percent opposed it and 7 percent were undecided.
One exception: Doris Del Toro, 52, an independent, Cuban-American voter who owns a small business in Miami.
"We don't need Arizona-like immigration laws here in Florida," she said. "This is the land of liberty. It's about human rights. I don't want to see that kind of treatment toward immigrants in Florida."
The telephone survey of 800 registered Florida voters — all likely to vote in the November general election — was conducted July 9-11 for the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13. The margin of error is 3.5 percentage points.
Times/Herald staff writers Sergio Bustos, Katie Sanders and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.