Washington (CNN) - The current crisis on the nation's southern border appears to be fueling a notable shift in American attitudes toward immigration policy with border security growing in importance, according to a new national survey.
A CNN/ORC International poll released on Thursday also indicates that a majority of those surveyed support making it easier for the United States to return migrant youth from Central America who have surged across the U.S. border with Mexico this year.
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But according to the survey, a bare majority views the children as refugees rather than illegal immigrants, and most say they'd be willing to have the federal government temporarily relocate some of the children to their communities or their city.
The influx of children trying to cross the southern border, many of them unaccompanied, has been a major media story over the past month. The White House and many Democrats have clashed with Republicans in Congress and governors over who is to blame and what should be done about it.
According to the poll, 51% now say the government's focus, when it comes to immigration policy, should be formulating a plan to stop the flow of undocumented immigrants. Forty-five percent say the top priority should be developing a plan that would allow undocumented immigrants who have jobs to become legal residents.
That's a change from February, when Americans said 54%-41% that legal status trumped border security.
"In the early part of this decade, a solid majority consistently said that the main focus of the U.S. government should be stopping the flow of illegal immigrants and deporting those already in the country. But in 2012, that flipped dramatically, with a solid majority believing that the government's main focus should be on a plan to allow illegal immigrants to become legal U.S. residents," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "Now - and in a matter of months - the pendulum has swung back."
Big partisan divide
The survey indicates major partisan, geographical, generational, and gender divides.
Sixty-one percent of Democrats, but less than a quarter of Republicans, say that legal status is more important than border security. Independents are divided.
A majority of northeasterners say legal status is most important, while majorities in the Midwest and South say border security is the top priority. People in the West are divided. A majority of men and those over 50 say beefing up the border is most pressing, while most of those under 50 say legal status comes first. Women are divided.
The attention the current crisis is receiving is also fueling a spike in those who say the issue's extremely important. Thirty-nine percent now say it's extremely important for President Barack Obama and Congress to deal with illegal immigration, up 10 points from last year.
"That means that immigration is the only issue tested that has grown significantly more important to the public in the past year," Holland adds. "Nonetheless, immigration remains less important to the American public than the economy, education, health care and the budget deficit."
How to fix the problem
Fifty-four percent of those questioned say they support spending several billion dollars to increase the number of border officials who can determine whether the immigrant children should be deported, or allowed to stay.
Obama proposed a $3.7 billion emergency spending bill, which was instantly opposed by conservatives who argued the plan was too expensive.
Senate Democrats unveiled a $2.7 billion version that lacks key changes to border policies that Republicans have demanded as a condition for approving new funds. Wednesday, House Republican countered with a $1.5 billion emergency spending bill.
Under current U.S. law, unaccompanied children from Central America who illegally come to the United States may remain for months or years until they receive an immigration hearing on their status.
The poll indicates that more than six in 10 favor a bill that would make it easier for federal authorities to deport all children who enter the country illegally.
There's a partisan divide on the question, with more than eight in 10 Republicans and nearly two-thirds of independents, but only a minority of Democrats, supporting the idea.
Refugees or illegal immigrants?
Americans are divided on how they view the undocumented children. Fifty-one percent describe most as refugees fleeing violence and poverty, with 45% saying most of them are illegal immigrants whose parents are trying to exploit a loophole in the U.S. immigration system.
By a 57%-41% margin, people say they'd be willing to have some of the children relocated to a security facility in the city or town where they live until the cases are resolved.
The poll was conducted for CNN by ORC International from July 18-20, with 1,012 adult Americans questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.