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The president and congressional Democrats say they want to improve border security, although the White House has been reluctant to agree to handcuffing stricter border controls to a pathway to citizenship, out of concern doing so would leave undocumented workers in limbo. Republicans have said that the two policies should be linked, but have not yet elaborated on what border control measures they want or how their successes would be measured.

The poll also showed strong divisions across racial and partisan groups, evidence of why Democrats feel empowered in talks over immigration reform — and why Republican lawmakers could face a tough decision.

Two-thirds of Hispanics approve of Obama's overall handling of immigration, while 82 percent support a pathway to citizenship. Nearly seven in 10 Democrats and a majority of independents also support enabling undocumented immigrants a chance at citizenship.

By contrast, the same proposal is supported by only 47 percent of white voters, 42 percent of Republicans, and 37 percent of those who self-identify as "very conservative."

That sets up a difficult task for Republicans, who will be forced to choose between opposing the reform effort, a move that would endear them to their base, or supporting a comprehensive plan in an attempt to win over political independents and Hispanics — two of the fastest growing groups in the electorate.