SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Americans are wary of granting refugee status to children crossing the U.S. border to flee strife-torn countries in Central America, and most in an Associated Press-GfK poll say the U.S. does not have a moral obligation to accept asylum seekers generally.
The new poll found 53 percent of Americans believe the United States has no moral obligation to offer asylum to people who escape violence or political persecution, while 44 percent believe it has that responsibility.
And more than half, 52 percent, say children who say they are fleeing gang violence in Central America should not be treated as refugees, while 46 percent say they should.
The responses expose a partisan rift, with 70 percent of Republicans saying Central American children should not be treated as refugees compared with 62 percent of Democrats who believe they should. On whether the United States has an obligation to accept people fleeing violence or political persecution, 66 percent of Republicans say it does not and 57 percent of Democrats say it does.
Jerry Benzie, a 27-year-old Republican from Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, 90 miles east of Pittsburgh, was initially sympathetic to the plight of children seeking shelter in the U.S. from violence at home. But his views changed as he grew convinced Central American governments could do more to slow the tide of northbound immigrants, and thought Mexico wasn't doing enough to prevent them from passing through that country on their way to the U.S.
Benzie said he worries the children will strain public schools and other services.
"How do you differentiate between the children who are truly fleeing violence and dangers and those whose parents may just see an opportunity for them in our country and are pushing them to go?" said Benzie, who works in the information technology industry. "It's going to take a toll on our economy because it's going to lead to higher taxes. Our citizens are going to suffer."
To qualify for asylum, applicants must prove they suffered persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution on grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion. A refugee must demonstrate the same but, unlike an asylum seeker, seeks protection while still outside the United States.
Americans who are closely following news about the wave of unaccompanied children crossing the border illegally in South Texas are less receptive, with only four in ten saying they should qualify as refugees. Among those who say they aren't paying as much attention, roughly half believe they should be treated as refugees.
White House officials said last week they were considering a pilot program to grant refugee status to young people from Honduras. They suggested the plan, which could be expanded to Guatemala and El Salvador, involves screening youths in their home countries.
President Barack Obama played down the idea after meeting in Washington last week with his Central American counterparts, saying it would affect only a small number of people.
The poll was taken as Congress neared its August recess amid wide disagreement over how to address what Obama has called a humanitarian crisis. The Border Patrol detained more than 57,000 unaccompanied children from October through June, the vast majority from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Americans with children under 18 are evenly split on whether the children crossing the border should be treated as refugees, with 49 percent taking each side. Those without young children tilt against refugee status, 53 percent to 45 percent.
Paula Stapleton, who is raising boys, ages 9 and 3, in Clinton, Arkansas, supports asylum or refugee status for children, but not for their parents or adults who come alone. She worries that children who are turned back to their home countries will end up in gangs, making the problem worse.
"The United States is a big enough country to take in children and give them a chance," said Stapleton, 33, a political independent. "It can't take everybody, but we can take their children."
Among Hispanics, 66 percent say children crossing the border who claim they are fleeing gang violence should be treated as refugees. Slightly fewer, 54 percent, said they see a moral obligation to accept people fleeing violence or persecution.
Mercedes Brand, a naturalized U.S. citizen in suburban New Jersey who emigrated from Peru 45 years ago, is in the minority among Hispanics. The youngest of her four U.S.-born children is saddled with college debt and she worries that the United States can't take care of its own, let alone newcomers.
"This country is built with immigrants, but those immigrants who came from Europe and all over the world didn't demand all the things that they are demanding now," said Brand, a 60-year-old Democrat who works as a Spanish interpreter for a health care provider. "When my grandchildren are old enough to collect Social Security, there may not be enough money. There may not be enough for me."
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted July 24-28 using KnowledgePanel, GfK's probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,044 adults, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents. The margin of sampling error is larger for subgroups.
Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and were later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.
Agiesta reported from Washington.
AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com