The latest Pew Research Center poll of 2,002 adults finds that “that 38% say legal immigration into the United States should be kept at its present level, while 32% say it should be increased and 24% say it should be decreased.”
Since 2001, according to the poll, “the share of Americans who favor increased legal immigration into the U.S. has risen 22 percentage points, while the share who support a decrease has declined 29 points.”
That’s bad news for the anti-immigrant crowd, who have made clear that their goal is not merely to round up and deport all illegal immigrants but also to severely cut the number of legal immigrants. That’s the aim of the Raise Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and David Perdue, R-Ga., and touted by President Donald Trump.
While Democrats have become more enthusiastic about legal immigration, so have Republicans, albeit to a smaller extent. “The share of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who say legal immigration into the U.S. should be increased has doubled since 2006, from 20% to 40%. . . . The share of Republicans and Republican leaners who say legal immigration should be decreased has fallen 10 percentage points since 2006, from 43% to 33%.” However, 33 percent of Republicans vs.16 percent of Democrats favor reducing legal immigration.
This is remarkable, given the stunning ignorance about the relative number of illegal and legal immigrants. (“Just 45% of Americans say that most immigrants living in the U.S. are here legally; 35% say most immigrants are in the country illegally, while 6% volunteer that about half are here legally and half illegally and 13% say they don’t know. In 2015, the most recent year for which data are available, lawful immigrants accounted for about three-quarters of the foreign-born population in the United States.”) Still, 69 percent are somewhat or very sympathetic toward illegal immigrants, while just “27% of Americans say that giving people who are in the U.S. illegally a way to gain legal status is like rewarding them for doing something wrong. More than twice as many (67%) say they don’t think of it this way. Since 2015, the share saying that providing legal status for those in the U.S. illegally is akin to a ‘reward’ for doing something wrong has declined 9 percentage points.”
Despite Trump’s persistent lying, most Americans “know documented immigrants living in the U.S. are not more likely than U.S. citizens to commit serious crimes (65% say this) and that undocumented immigrants mostly fill jobs citizens don’t want (71% say this).” That’s somewhat reassuring after two years of nonstop anti-immigrant harangues.
Even Republicans have not been entirely won over by Trump’s nonstop slurs against immigrants - 48 percent feel sympathetic toward illegal immigrants, while 49 percent do not. Even with their supposedly tried-and-true mantra of “No amnesty!,” anti-immigrant voices haven’t won over a majority of Republicans (46 percent think legalization is a reward, while 47 percent do not).
One area in which nervous politicians and pundits sympathetic to immigration have given ground to opponents is on the use of English. Well, ordinary Americans just don’t like hearing all that Spanish. Perhaps pro-immigrant voices should reassess their eagerness to indulge xenophobes. “Most Americans say they often (47%) or sometimes (27%) come into contact with immigrants who speak little or no English. Among those who say this, just 26% say it bothers them, while 73% say it does not. The share saying they are bothered by immigrants speaking little or no English has declined by 12 percentage points since 2006 (from 38% to 26%) and 19 points since 1993 (from 45%).”
Let me offer some informed speculation as to why the outlook of most Americans so strongly differs from Trump’s and Trump’s base and why Americans as a whole are becoming more sympathetic toward immigrants. Many of Trump’s red-state supporters, as I have observed, come from states with a minuscule number of illegal immigrants. They’ve decided that these people are dangerous and are out to steal their jobs, based on very little firsthand experience. In 2016, Pew found that in states such as Kansas and South Carolina, the number of illegal immigrants was quite small and shrinking (95,000 in 2009 to 75,000 in 2009 in Kansas, out of a population of nearly 3 million; 100,000 to 85,0000 in South Carolina, out of a population of more than 4.8 million.) In Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s home state of Alabama, the number went from 80,000 to 65,000 - out of more than 4 million people. In short, much but not all of the staunch opposition to both legal and illegal immigration comes from less-populated, rural states with few immigrants.
By contrast, in states with huge illegal-immigrant populations, which have become part of the fabric of society (California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois), the attitude toward immigrants is positive, and becoming more so as more Americans interact, work and live with immigrants - and intermarry as well. Even in Texas, where Republican politicians remain obsessed with deportation, “Three-fifths of the registered voters surveyed in the poll said they would continue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. Just 30 percent said the program should end.” (You may recall that Republicans along the border disfavored the wall.)
In sum, the country’s overall view of immigrants and even illegal immigrants is improving since a high percentage of Americans live in heavily populated states with large numbers of immigrants (both legal and illegal). As a percentage of the population (and thereby reflected in the polls). more people are having experience with more and more immigrants; it has changed their view of these Americans.
Trump’s base and the GOP is disproportionately rural and therefore comes in contact far less frequently with actual immigrants. They’re content to blame immigrants - or are riled up to do so by Trump - for social and economic woes that may have in reality virtually nothing to do with immigrants. The population in these states is declining, and with that the number of rabid anti-immigrant voters, although their intensity is soaring.
That’s an educated guess as to what is going on. It does not solve the political problem and stalemate, however. Thanks to gerrymandering and two senators for each of those small red states, anti-immigrant voters have disproportionate influence in relation to their overall share of the population; within the GOP, it may be the dominant voice.
The solution? Voters who see the United States as a culturally diverse and tolerant country need to get out and vote. If they did and if they pushed for more equitable districting, they would have the upper hand in the political debate. As on guns, the side that feels the most passionate, even if it has a minority of the voters, can exercise huge power. The question is whether pro-immigrant Americans care enough to vote and have their views reflected in Congress and the White House.
Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a center-right perspective.