A new survey suggests most Americans support allowing a limited number of illegal immigrants to become permanent U.S. residents. Groups supporting such legalization say it is the right thing to do, while opponents say it rewards lawbreakers.

Richard Cebenko works as a janitor at a Chicago-area university. He is in the United States illegally after overstaying his visa. He has not seen his family in Poland for ten years because if he visits them, he would not be able to return to his job in the United States.

"I am very happy working here because I can help my family in Poland," he says. "I pay taxes. I can not visit my family because I do not have papers. I [would] like to be here in the United States legally."

Immigrants rights groups say it is unfair that undocumented workers like Mr. Cebenko can not become legal residents. They already pay taxes and contribute to the economy and their communities.

A new poll suggests many Americans might share that view. A telephone survey of likely voters conducted by Republican and Democratic pollsters found about 60 percent of Americans feel undocumented workers should be eligible for legal status if they can prove they have been in the United States since 1995, working and paying taxes. Fred Tsao of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights says the survey results are good news.

"More people are starting to realize that extending the opportunity for the undocumented who have been here and working and paying taxes is the just the right thing to do," says Mr. Tsao.

Critics of legalizing undocumented workers say granting such an amnesty only shows the world the United States is not interested in enforcing its immigration laws. "Our position is that people who enter this country illegally are in fact criminals," explains David Gorak, director of the Midwest Coalition to Reform Immigration, based in suburban Chicago. "The only right they are entitled to is to be treated humanely while waiting for deportation."

Nearly three-quarters of Americans surveyed said they did not think an immigrant would take their job in the near future. About half feel that recent immigrants have tended to take jobs most Americans do not want. Mr. Gorak says Americans do not want those jobs because the wages have been slashed during the last 20 years. "Let me ask you a question: who did those jobs before this cheap and exploitable labor was brought in? Who worked in the meat packing plants in Iowa and Nebraska?," he asks.

The U.S. government says there is no plan to grant legal status to undocumented workers in the future. The U.S. and Mexico have been discussing what to do about illegal immigration. That topic will be on the agenda next month when Mexican President Vicente Fox visits Washington. Immigrant rights groups urge President Bush to make sure any potential changes to immigration law include workers from countries other than Mexico as well.