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An immigration protester carries a child on his shoulders during May Day demonstrations in Los Angeles, California in this file photo taken May 1, 2012. The Obama administration will relax enforcement of deportation rules for young people brought to the United States without legal status, a softening of immigration policy that is likely to appeal to Hispanic voters in an election year.JASON REDMOND/Reuters

The number of Americans who consider a large influx of immigrants to be a "critical threat" to the United States has shrunk to 40 per cent, a survey published Thursday found.

It was a sharp drop from a peak of 72 per cent in 1994, and the first time since then that the number of Americans who feel threatened by immigrants fell below 51 per cent in a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Meanwhile, the number of respondents who said that controlling and reducing immigration was a very important foreign policy goal fell to 53 per cent from 59 perc ent in 2010, down from a peak of 72 per cent in 1994.

For the first time since the question was asked in 2002, the bi-annual survey found that more Americans support keeping immigration at present levels (42 per cent) than favor reducing the number of immigrants admitted (37 per cent).

"This is a striking change in opinion from ten years ago when six in ten Americans favored decreasing immigration levels," the council said in a press release.

The number of Americans who support expanding legal immigration more than doubled over the past decade from seven percent to 18 per cent.

The survey found a "wide partisan divide" on issues of immigration, however.

Some 55 per cent of Republicans considered large inflows of immigrants to be a threat, while only 40 per cent of independents and 30 percent of Democrats felt threatened.

A decade ago, the partisan divide on the issue was both reversed and much narrower: 62 per cent of Democrats surveyed in 2002 felt immigration was a threat while only 58 per cent of independents and Republicans said so.

While immigration has not played a large role in the current presidential election, the survey found strong bipartisan support for immigration reform.

When asked if they favored reform which included "securing the border, penalizing employers who hire illegal immigrants, and requiring illegal immigrants to either leave the country or enter a program toward citizenship that involves paying back taxes and learning English," 87 per cent of Republicans, 76 per cent of independents and 75 per cent of Democrats agreed.

The survey also found that people in the midwest were more threatened (45 per cent compared with 39 per cent) and inclined to put a high priority on reducing illegal immigration (58 per cent compared with 51 per cent) than people in other regions.

The survey was conducted in May, June and August and has a three per cent margin of error.