As President Barack Obama and Congress strive to overhaul America's immigration laws, three quarters of Californians -- a record majority -- are on board with the idea of legalizing the more than 2 million immigrants illegally living in the state.
Californians across generations and political inclinations also appear to be warming up to the minority-majority, immigrant-heavy reality of today's Golden State, according to a survey being released Thursday by the Public Policy Institute of California. It also revealed opinions on gun control, same-sex marriage and Gov. Jerry Brown's budget.
By July, state demographers predict, Latinos will surpass whites for the first time as California's largest group -- each now represents about 39 percent of the population. But the cultural anxieties and acrimonious political battles of the 1990s, when a larger share of Californians reported seeing immigrants as a burden, continue their slow thaw.
"There is a sense that we've got to make some good policy decisions in line with the changing demographics," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group. His group's January survey of 1,704 adults found a record-high 63 percent of Californians view immigrants as a benefit to the state because of their hard work and job skills, while a declining minority consider them an economic burden.
Seventy-five percent say they back Brown's budgetary plan to divert extra money to schools that have large concentrations of English-language learners and low-income students, though support for that idea declined as age and wealth increased and was far more popular among Latinos than whites.
And 76 percent, a record high, said they support allowing illegal immigrants to keep their jobs and eventually achieve legal residency. A record low -- 21 percent -- prefer deporting them. The opinions mirror a nationwide shift helping to drive leading Republicans and Democrats together in crafting bipartisan immigration reform proposals in Congress.
Baldassare said that political leaders themselves may be fueling the shifting perspectives, with liberals aligning themselves with Obama's reform push and conservatives echoing the softening opinions of Fox News personalities and Republican lawmakers concerned about their electoral viability.
"Californians get signals from their federal leaders," he said, and when they "hear there's consensus on an issue, they're more comfortable in expressing that view."
Among those celebrating the changing tone was Leticia Alvarez, a San Jose waitress and mother of two who is resting her family's future on Congress granting her a path to citizenship this year.
Alvarez said she crossed the border 17 years ago with a dream of making enough money to lift her mother out of poverty and pay for her younger brothers' educations.
Alvarez and her husband, also here illegally, know they add value to their community and economy, and now they're hoping to do "better things" by joining the legal workforce.
"There's a lot of us who have been living in the shadows for more than 20 years," she said. "We're trying to work really hard."
Skeptical of what he called the media drumbeat for amnesty was Danville resident John DiPaolo, one of 31 percent of Californians -- a record low, according to the survey -- who believe immigrants have been more of a burden than benefit.
"I feel I am worse off than my parents," and too much immigration is one of the chief causes, said DiPaolo, a technician at a medical manufacturer. "As a Democrat, I'm very concerned about the wage depression and income inequality that seems to accompany high levels of illegal immigration."
DiPaolo also faulted the poll and others like it for forcing a choice between legalization and mass deportation -- his solution would rest somewhere in between.
On other issues, the poll found 65 percent of Californians say government does too little to regulate access to guns, and 31 percent say government goes too far in restricting gun rights.
And it found 65 percent of Californians and 64 percent of likely voters would support a nationwide ban on selling assault weapons. That's pretty close to the national support — 69 percent — for an assault weapons ban found in a poll released this week by the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
When PPIC asked how worried they are, if at all, that a mass shooting could happen in their community, a majority of Californians say they worry either a great deal (35 percent) or somewhat (26 percent), with parents of children under 18 and non-gun-owners among those most concerned.
Reporter Josh Richman contributed to this report. Contact reporter Matt O'Brien at 510-293-2465.
The Public Policy Institute of California poll results are available at www.ppic.org/main/publication.asp?i=1044