What the U.S. Thinks About Immigration - and Why it Should Matter When We Attempt Reform


Americans agree that the country’s policies on handling immigration have long needed reform. However, what kinds of reform and the impact immigration itself has on the United States are matters of great controversy. For both former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, promising efforts at comprehensive immigration reform were blocked by the unrelenting opposition.

As Obama's second term began it seemed that the time for successful comprehensive immigration reform had arrived, especially when the Senate passed its major reform bill in June 2013. However, with the Republican-controlled House refusing to give it consideration, the bill died when the congressional session ended the next year. With both chambers in Republican hands after the November 2014 elections, any executive reforms needing congressional approval were doomed.

Consequently, President Obama acted unilaterally on immigration, contending that he had the requisite authority to do so. He announced a new policy, the Deferred Action of for Parents of Americans, which deferred deportation of individuals who met the new guidelines. Although this executive action was very popular with Democrats and Hispanics, it was opposed by a slight national majority in the first surveys after its announcement.

When asked the question of whether they approve or disapprove of the way Obama is handling immigration, 51% of the total population and 85% of Republicans disapproved. The question was asked at more than three dozen points between April 2015 and October 2016.

More so than any of the other Republican candidates, Donald Trump seized on the issue of immigration with his strong, restrictionist positions which resonated with primary voters. For example, in the crucial South Carolina primary, the Trump vote was 14 percent higher among those who agreed that all illegal immigrants should be deported than his overall vote in the state (which was 33 percent). For the 27 states with exit polls (and a few entrance polls for caucus states), Trump's advantage among voters agreeing with the deportation of illegal immigrants was 13 percent; for a ban on all Muslim immigration it was 9 percent. By comparison, on his best performing economic question his advantage was only 4 percent.

One of President Trump’s most defining issues has been his promise to build a wall across the entire U.S. Mexican border. This position proved very popular with his supporters, 87 percent of those who voted for him in the Republican primaries were in agreement. This was 31% higher than the average for Republicans supporting other candidates.

However, when we turn to the overall population, support for Trump’s position drops substantially. Looking at numerous surveys going back to September 2015, general popular support for the wall has been consistently below 50%, often substantially so, and with that support falling as the country moved into the general election period.

Until recently, the two major political parties have been evenly matched when it comes to which is more trusted to handle the immigration issue. However, last year, a small advantage opened for the Democrats. When asked on seven different occasions between March and September 2016 which candidate they most trusted to handle immigration issues, Hillary Clinton was preferred over Donald Trump each time by a median margin of 8%. In 2012, in contrast, Mitt Romney had a slim median advantage of 1% over Barack Obama.

Nonetheless, since Republicans retained control of Congress in the 2016 elections, President Trump should find a strong base of legislative support for his immigration initiatives. This should be especially true in the House of Representatives for restrictionist sentiment prevails in the states with the largest Republican delegations.

However, when we move from Republicans to the overall population a different story emerges which may complicate action in the Senate where the filibuster gives Democrats important leverage. For some years, the public has been moving toward the expansionist position on immigration-related issues (although notably still preferring a decrease in overall immigration levels). Support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country has been growing and for the past four years it has commanded a slight majority. Despite his best efforts, President Trump has failed in moving the majority of Americans towards his position on this issue.

President Trump should be able to redirect national immigration policy where he can take unilateral executive action, but not without substantial opposition. The executive order he issued at the end of his first week, banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries, has sparked protests around the country, raised many legal questions, and prompted international outcry. Trump could very well be stymied, just as his successors were, when it comes to major changes requiring congressional approval.

Personally, I favor a comprehensive package of reforms that lean in the permissive direction. However, I have some sympathy for those who favor greater immigration restrictions. In my years of studying immigration policy I have taken notice of the gap between what the public says it wants concerning immigration and what it has received instead from public policy. This has been especially true on questions related to illegal immigration, which there has been long-standing, deep, and wide opposition.

This is not healthy in a democracy. Immigration expansionists have failed to meaningfully address the concerns of pluralities and even majorities of citizens consistently registered in surveys of public opinion. When there is an unwillingness to listen, a restrictionist grassroots backlash should not be a surprise.

Regardless of one’s preferences on this issue, I believe that we all need to do a better job of paying attention to what the American public says and wants. Until we do, it is likely we will continue to be frustrated by policy stalemate.

Charles D. Brockett has a PhD in political science and several decades' experience teaching about immigration in courses both on U.S. and Latin American politics. A professor emeritus at Sewanee: The University of the South, he has written What the U.S. Public Thinks about Immigration—and Why It Should Matter When We Attempt Reform: The Trump Years (Kindle edition) as well as two well-received books on Central America and is the co-editor of two collections concerning immigration and citizenship in the United States—Complex Allegiances: Constellations of Immigration, Citizenship & Belonging and Shifting Balance Sheets: Women's Stories of Naturalized Citizenship & Cultural Attachment, both published by Wising Up Press.

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