Attitudes toward immigration have traditionally swung with the economy. When times are good, people feel good about pretty much everything, and less threatened by immigration and its potential effect on them. When times turn bad, folks tend to look for scapegoats, and they either blame immigrants for the economy’s problems or express fears that immigrants will be bad for the country and the state.

California saw this in 1994, when voters approved a measure that sought to end public benefits for undocumented immigrants, and again in 2003, when then-Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain a drivers license, and the backlash against that law helped drive him from office in a recall election.

But the connection between the economy and public attitudes toward immigration may be moderating. Two recent polls suggest that Californians remain fairly sanguine about immigrants and immigration, despite high unemployment and a big and persistent budget deficit.

A Field Poll last week found that nearly half – 47 percent – of registered voters said that recent immigration was having no effect on California’s quality of life. Thirty-nine percent said immigration was making things worse, and 10 percent said it was improving the state’s quality of life.

A closer look at those numbers shows that they track closely with age. Younger people are much more positive about immigration than are older Californians. One big reason for that difference is that the younger population is more heavily weighted with immigrants themselves and with the children of immigrants. But younger Californians who were born here are probably more open to immigration than their elders as well, because they have grown up in a more diverse and changing society.

Among those aged 18 to 29, only 24 percent said immigration was making things worse. That number climbs with each 10-year age group until, at age 65 and older, 48 percent say immigration is making things worse.

Feelings about immigration were even more positive when people were asked about their own community. Overall, 62 percent said it was having no effect, while 26 percent said it was making things worse and 9 percent said immigration was improving the quality of life in their community. The same correlation with age was evident in the answers to that question.

A Public Policy Institute of California poll released this week, meanwhile, found that nearly two thirds of Californians believe that undocumented immigrants who have been living and working here for two years should be allowed to stay and keep their jobs. While this number (65 percent) is down from its peak of 74 percent in June 2007, it still shows broad support or at least acceptance of immigration in a time of economic distress.

Sixty-eight percent of Californians, meanwhile, favor the idea of a “Dream Act,” a law that would allow undocumented immigrants brought here as children to attain legal resident status if they go to college or join the military.

And while most Republicans in public office oppose a path to citizenship and the Dream Act, those positions are not monolithic within the party at large. According to the poll, 41 percent of Republicans favor allowing undocumented immigrants to remain here if they have lived and worked in the country for at least two years. And 46 percent of Republicans support granting legal resident status to undocumented immigrants who came here as children, if they join the military or attend college.

Daniel Weintraub is editor of the California Health Report at