US president Barack Obama's pledge to fast-track the deportation of migrant children from Central America is out of step with the opinion of a majority of Americans, who say the children should be allowed to stay in the United States, at least for a while.
The results of a Reuters/Ipsos poll highlight the complexity of the child migrant issue for Obama, who has sought to emphasise his compassion while also insisting that his administration plans to send home most of the children, many of whom have fled violence in their homelands.
The poll, conducted on July 31-August 5, found that 51% of Americans believe the unaccompanied children being detained at the US-Mexico border should be allowed to remain in the country for some length of time.
That included 38% who thought the unaccompanied youngsters should be sheltered and cared for until it was deemed safe for them to return home. Thirteen per cent said the children should be allowed to stay in the US, while 32% said the children should be immediately deported.
“Overall, people are humane and they understand that no matter what our situation is with the budget, whether or not we can afford this, these are kids. No matter what the immigration system is, they are innocent,” said Lance Lee, 42, of Alabama, who took part in the survey.
But Lee said he wanted to see the border sealed to prevent another wave of illegal migrants entering the US.
Between October 2013 and the end of July of this year, nearly 63,000 unaccompanied children have flooded across the southwestern US border. Many are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
Concerned that smugglers are encouraging the influx by spreading rumors that the children will be allowed to stay in the US, the Obama administration has toughened its public messaging, warning that newly arriving youngsters will be quickly sent home.
Obama is widely seen as acting, at least in part, because of intensifying election-year pressure from Republicans, who say he has not moved swiftly enough to curb the influx.
The justice department is placing child migrants on a faster track for deportation hearings, and the White House has called for changes to a 2008 law, intended to combat human trafficking, that bars the immediate removal of Central American children.
Those policies have angered some of Obama's Democratic allies in the US Congress and Hispanic groups that represent an important base of the president's political support.
Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez, a leading advocate in the US Congress of immigration reform, has vehemently criticised the fast-track policy, which includes prioritizing children over adults at deportation hearings.
“We should not take short-cuts and circumvent due process at this critical time when children are fleeing violence and asking for our help,” Gutierrez said in a statement emailed to Reuters.
At the same time, Republicans have sharply criticised Obama's policies, saying his 2012 decision to give temporary deportation relief to some young people brought to the US by their parents had encouraged the border influx.
Emphasising the compassionate side of the administration's policies, vice-president Joe Biden last week urged private law firms to offer the children free legal assistance.
“There's an awful lot of kids who need help. They need representation,” Biden said.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that 48% of Democrats believe the children should be cared for until it is safe for them to return home, against 30% of Republicans and 37% of people who identified themselves as independents.
The question of where and how to house the children while they await deportation hearings has stirred strong responses in some communities where shelters were planned. There were fears the youngsters could bring crime and disease to neighbourhoods and create an extra burden on public finances.
Flag-waving demonstrations took place in border cities like Oracle, Arizona while local government in communities such as such as Murrieta, California, and League City, Texas, voted to reject any plan to build shelters.
But the survey showed that the opposition to housing the children is not as widespread as the anti-immigrant images that dominated the media in recent weeks may have suggested.
Asked if they supported allowing the unaccompanied minors to be temporarily relocated to their communities, 41% said they would support such a step, while 48% said they opposed it.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll interviewed 1,566 Americans online. The precision of the Reuters/Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the survey had a credibility interval of plus or minus 2.8% points.