An extraordinary 90 percent of California voters now favor letting illegal immigrants who have lived here for a number of years stay and become citizens if they have a job, learn English and pay back taxes, a new Field Poll shows.

This is the most support for a plan to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants since the Field Poll began tracking it seven years ago, and comes as Congress rings with bipartisan calls for comprehensive immigration reform.

"Voters of all political parties, races and ethnicities have come to the judgment that longtime residents who have been in this country but are still without papers need some path to citizenship," Field Poll director Mark DiCamillo said Thursday.

Although a majority has supported this for some time, he said, "now that they're hearing both Republican and Democratic leaders coming to the same conclusion, it's really bringing everybody together on that issue."

A bipartisan group of U.S. senators is working on such a bill, and a leaked Obama administration proposal would set an eight-year probation and a 13-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million immigrants here illegally.

Even granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants in California for the first time drew majority support -- 52 percent favored it.


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Even so, the Field Poll shows Californians' stern attitudes toward illegal immigration: 65 percent of voters favor having more federal agents patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border; 57 percent favor stiff penalties for hiring illegal immigrants; 46 percent favor detaining and deporting people living here illegally; and 46 percent favor building more fences on U.S.-Mexico border.

In many cases, support for a path to citizenship seems to be a pragmatic solution to an intractable problem -- or a simple issue of fairness.

"If they've been here a while and been working, and they're spending money and helping the economy, if they've been solid citizens and not committing crimes, they should get the same rights that every other American gets," said Manuel Martinez, a 47-year-old bus driver from Santa Clara County. "That's what we're all about, bringing in the immigrants, your poor and weak and all, who are just trying to get the same dream that we are all trying to get."

The driver's license issue, however, is one that still bedevils Californians.

A two-decade statewide ban on illegal immigrants driving has resulted in many riding bicycles, buses and BART to work, while others choose to get behind the wheel anyway, risking arrest, a towed car and deportation.

Jose Parra, 20, said having a driver's license would help him get to and from his electrical engineering classes at Oakland's Laney College and in his career after he graduates next year. More immediately, he said, it's about family.

"Once a year we go down to Los Angeles for Thanksgiving," he said. "It's a big risk driving down there with no license."

Martinez said he doesn't have a problem with immigrants getting licenses, but added that "they should have to go through the same test that we have to" and be able to pass a written test printed in English.

"All the signs are in English,'' he said. "They should be able to read them."

The poll results reflect the conflicting opinions on illegal immigration, which has brought California the nation's largest illegal population -- people able to send their children to public schools but constantly at risk of deportation and banned from driving or accessing other benefits of legal residency.

Conservative outrage over a 2003 driver's license bill for illegal immigrants was seen as contributing to the recall that unseated Democratic Gov. Gray Davis that year. Just last September, Field found 56 percent of California voters opposing licenses for illegal immigrants.

Regardless of popular opinion, tens of thousands of California's young undocumented immigrants can soon get driver's licenses for the first time, and some have already.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in October to let the immigrants approved for federal deportation relief get state driver's licenses. It took effect Jan. 1.

Those measures irk some Californians, such as Lafayette independent voter Fred Caven, who say letting illegal immigrants have driver's licenses encourages them to stay here.

Yet the retired accountant and investment banker is among that vast California majority endorsing a legal pathway to citizenship.

"If you're going to make a process to allow illegal immigrants to become legal immigrants, I'm OK with that," Caven said. "If you're going to treat them as legal when in fact they're illegal, I have a big problem with that."

Staff writer Eric Kurhi contributed to this report.