07/29/2010 12:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Poll Finds California Voters Support Arizona-Style Immigration Law

This story comes courtesy of California Watch.

Louis Freedberg

Could an anti-illegal immigration initiative along the lines of the Arizona law, now partially blocked from going into effect, ever become law in California?

A recent Field Poll suggests that were such an initiative to make it onto the ballot, it would get strong support from California's electorate, just as Proposition 187, the initiative stripping illegal immigrants of a range of benefits, did in 1994. An earlier Field Poll found that Californians were more likely to vote for candidates who supported the Arizona law.

The conventional thinking has been that because of the large proportion of Latinos in the electorate, and because of the devastating impact passage of Prop. 187 had on the Republican Party in alienating it from Latino voters, such an outcome would be impossible to contemplate today.

It's true that the state Legislature, with Latinos in high leadership positions, and Democrats solidly in the majority, is unlikely to pass anything resembling either the Arizona law (SB 1070) or Prop. 187.

But should someone with deep pockets be willing to bankroll a voter initiative that circumvented constitutional concerns, it might well win at the ballot box.

According to the most recent Field Poll (conducted between June 22 and July 5), there is clear-cut support for the Arizona law among likely voters in California. Forty-one percent are strongly in favor and 13 percent are somewhat in favor of the law. That's compared to 32 percent who are strongly opposed and 11 percent somewhat opposed.

Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll, said the same dynamic was at work during the battle around Prop. 187 in the early 1990s. "Likely voters took a harsher view than all adults in California, and I see that on this survey as well," he said.

DiCamillo pointed out that even though attitudes of Californians toward illegal immigrants have become more moderate since the passage of Prop. 187, 56 percent of voters still believe that illegal immigrants have an unfavorable impact on the state, compared to only 34 percent who say they have a favorable effect.

Immigrant advocates are hopeful that a new generation of Californians would reject a new Prop. 187-type initiative. "We've learned things that maybe other states haven't about how interdependent we are on immigrants who live here," said Tanya Broder, an Oakland-based senior attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, one of several groups that has filed a suit challenging the constitutionality of the Arizona law.

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, said that rather than mounting a statewide campaign, anti-illegal immigration groups like Save Our State have organized in smaller Southern California communities like Costa Mesa, Hemet, Yorba Linda, Santa Clarita and Lancaster which have declared their support of the Arizona law or approved "rule-of-law" ordinances directed at illegal immigrants.

The Save Our State website carries a bright red, scrolling headline that reads "Go Arizona! ... California Supports You ... Save Your State!"

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, which has worked nationwide to support a range of similar measures, is working in California but declined to comment on its plans for the state.

The likelihood of a new version of Prop. 187 making it back onto the California ballot will be shaped by whether the Arizona law is found to be unconstitutional (as Prop. 187 was by a lower court). But Salas said she is hopeful that if they were asked to vote on it, California's disproportionately younger population would reject it.

"Some of the electorate is very anti-immigrant, but especially younger Californians have a very different perspective on immigrants and the rights they should have," she said. "My hope is that this new generation will be more aligned with a vision of California that is united and growing together."

At the moment, however, older voters easily outnumber younger ones.

One thing is certain: Another initiative modeled after Prop. 187 would rock California politics, as it did in 1994.

"It would be as divisive an initiative as I can imagine, and it is in the realm of possibility that one will appear again," DiCamillo said.