More people favor illegal border crossings being a criminal violation than favor it being only a civil violation, although that perspective is sharply divided between the two political parties, according to a Hill-HarrisX poll.
What do the numbers show?
Forty-one percent of voters surveyed believe illegal border crossers should face criminal prosecution, compared to only 32 percent that believe the act should only be punished by civil fines. Twenty-seven percent of respondents were unsure on the issue.
Divided by party
Of the Republicans surveyed, 67 percent favor criminal prosecution for illegal border crossings. Only 24 percent of Democrats think it should be a criminally prosecuted. Among independents, 36 percent believe it should be a crime, and 33 percent believe it should be a civil violation.
Why is this important right now?
Democratic presidential candidates have come out in favor of decriminalizing illegal border crossings. Former Obama Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) publicly supported decriminalization first, with other candidates taking the stance during the first debates.
Democrats like Castro have tied criminalization of border crossing to the separation of immigrant children from their parents.
"The reason they're separating these little children from their families is they're using Section 1325...to incarcerate the parents and separate them," Castro said during the first Democratic primary debate.
Where does this lead?
At a time when immigrant detention facilities are overrun and some asylum seekers will wait years to have their cases heard by an immigration judge, some fear that Democratic intentions to soften penalties for illegal border crossing while also extending government-funded healthcare to illegal immigrants will make the crisis at the border worse.
Even Democratic candidate Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) cautioned his party against decriminalization.
"I just don't think at this moment in time when we have a huge kind of surge at our border sending a message that we're going to decriminalize crossings is the right thing to do," Delaney said to Hill.TV.