WASHINGTON -- Lou Dobbs' swift exit from CNN after criticism of his coverage of immigration may be more reflective of the times than first thought, according to a survey released with little fanfare on Monday.

Americans are largely supportive of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a new report by the Pew Research Center concluded.

Sixty-three percent of the public support the idea, up from 58 percent in 2007, the year of a contentious immigration debate that ended in legislative failure. The study also revealed a growing partisan divide on the issue since 2007, with Democratic approval for the provision rising by 11 percent and Republican support falling by 6 points.

The language used to describe the issue proved to have a notable impact on public opinion. Support fell considerably, particularly among Republicans, when asked whether they support "amnesty for illegal immigrants" as opposed to a "pathway to citizenship."

Democrats are preparing to push for reform inclusive of this provision next year, and the debate is likely to coincide with the 2010 elections. The issue isn't a high priority for the general public but it's likely to play an important role among Hispanic voters, a burgeoning electoral force who rate immigration as a higher priority than other demographics.

Scott Keeter, Pew's Director of Survey Research, described the Obama plan as "a 'three-legged stool' including stricter enforcement, a 'tough and fair pathway to earned legal status' for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., and a more efficient process for legal immigration," in light of a recent speech by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

"Immigration is a hugely energizing force in Latino engagement in political life," Clarissa Martinez, Director of Immigration & National Campaigns for the Hispanic advocacy group National Council of La Raza, told Raw Story.

Martinez said the issue is likely to help Democrats because "sadly, more members of the Republican Party – although not exclusively – have embraced an anti-immigrant stance."

The legalization process is likely to be a contentious issue as a key plank in the GOP's newly revealed "purity test" for members includes "opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants."

But The Hispanic Institute's Board Chairman Gus West isn't so sure of Democrats' commitment to the issue, saying that Democrats had better deliver and ought not to take the Latino vote for granted.

"So far, the Obama administration has been a continuation of the Bush administration on immigration," West said, slamming the 44th president's lack of enthusiasm toward the issue so far.

Both NCLR and THI expressed optimism for an immigration overhaul next year, adding that the path to legalization is a crucial sticking point and the Latino community would reward lawmakers who pass a strong bill.

"There are key senate races in Florida, California, and even an open-seat race in Texas, where the Hispanic constituency can play a very large role," Cliff Schecter, President of progressive political strategy firm Libertas LLC., said. "And of course, states like Arizona and Florida will be growing electorally by 2012."

The 2007 Bush legislation included the pathway to citizenship and other components Obama supports, but was marred by anti-immigrant sentiments and sparring from both sides of the political spectrum. Obama, who voted for the 2007 legislation as a senator, now faces a challenge if he is to win broad approval for an overhaul.