One of Donald Trump’s most consistent focuses, a vision he’s had as a candidate and maintained throughout the first half of his presidential term, is that the United States isn’t doing enough to protect itself from the evils of immigrants. Most of the time this is couched in language about migrants illegally swarming past the southern border—a narrative that doesn’t line up with reality—but Trump also wants to cut legal immigration, making him a hardliner even by GOP standards. The idea that undocumented people cause crime (another false narrative) was Trump’s closing argument in the final days of the midterm campaign, and his demand for money to build a wall on the southern border led to a government shutdown after the House and Senate couldn’t agree on a funding bill Friday.
You can argue that immigration is good for the economy, that many of Trump’s efforts to deport undocumented immigrants are vicious and racist, and that the wall in particular is a dumb way to stop illegal border crossings. All of those are good arguments. But Trump’s policies aren’t just bad, they’re unpopular—and one of the quietly important stories of his presidency is that he might end up making Americans more supportive of immigration in general and undocumented people in particular.
Immigration reform once again became a hot topic last year, when Trump tried to end DACA, a program instituted under Barack Obama that protected people who were brought to the US illegally as children (a.k.a. “dreamers”) from deportation. But Trump’s decision was blocked by the courts, and unable to come to any sort of agreement on broader reforms, Congress basically gave up on the issue. In the absence of new legislation, Trump has tried to use his executive authority to prosecute undocumented people living in the US, crack down on the southern border by separating families who cross it, and make it harder to apply for asylum, policies that have been effectively challenged in ongoing court battles. (On Friday, the Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling stopping the Trump administration from banning asylum applications from people who crossed the border illegally.)
The good news is that polling in 2018 has fairly consistently shown that Americans disapprove of these cruel policies. A NPR-Ipsos poll from June found that there were stark partisan divides on immigration but overall, the wall, family separation, and restrictions on asylum seekers were not popular. The only immigration ideas that got a majority of support in that poll were a pathway to citizenship for dreamers (a Democratic priority) and fining employers who hire undocumented workers, which is just about the only restrictionist position Trump hasn’t pushed hard for, perhaps because his golf clubs have hired undocumented workers.
An Economist/YouGov poll from the summer came back with similar results. The Federalist claimed it showed “Trump’s Immigration Policies Are Actually Pretty Popular” because a plurality of respondents favored detaining border crossers (though not separating families), but the poll also found that more people wanted to increase legal immigration than decrease it, and more people were opposed to a border wall than supported it. Fifty-two percent of respondents favored a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, versus 35 percent who wanted them to all leave the country, which is Trump’s preferred policy.
Americans seem to support the idea of immigration more broadly. A June Gallup poll found that 75 percent of Americans say immigration is a “good thing,” a record high since 2001. A Pew survey from around that time discovered that for the first time in two decades, more Americans wanted to increase legal immigration levels than wanted to decrease them (keeping immigration at current levels was more popular than either of those choices). And a September NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 61 percent of Americans said immigration helps the country, versus just 28 percent who said it hurts.
It’s not clear how much of that pro-immigration sentiment can be attributed to a backlash against Trump. That NBC/Wall Street Journalpoll has been asking Americans the same question about immigrants for years, and it’s found a major shift in opinion since 2005, when just 37 percent of respondents said immigration helps more than it hurts—but that change in mood was happening years before Trump. On the other hand, Trump appears to have altered public opinion on other topics, with Republican support for the FBI dropping after Trump attacked the agency and GOP friendliness to Russia increasing subsequent to all of Trump’s pro-Putin statements.
The bottom line is that while parsing public opinion surveys on specific policies is always dicey because respondents can be fickle or uninformed, there is a lot of evidence that the US is becoming more friendly toward immigrants, and that Trump is increasingly out of step with the country on his signature issue.
So why does he keep pushing it? One theory might be that though anti-immigration sentiment isn’t actually that common nationwide, there are key pockets of anti-immigrant voters Trump can activate with xenophobic rhetoric. But these ugly tactics largely failed in the midterms, with Democrats winning back the House of Representatives in a landslide while driving many anti-immigration sheriffs out of office.
Though Trump’s immigration views are sometimes called “populist,” this is a weird formulation. What the midterms and 2018 opinion polling have revealed is that his anti-immigration stances are the deeply unpopular product of a cadre of hardliners who have effectively taken over the Republican Party. His agenda is so toxic that when the Senate voted on a range of immigration proposals (all of which were defeated) in February, the harshest one, backed by Trump, was the one that garnered the least support.
This is good news for Democrats going into a battle over reopening the government. In the new year they’ll have control over the House and will likely quickly vote to end the shutdown without giving Trump the few billion he wants for his wall. The president could prolong the shutdown by not signing a funding bill, but Democrats should be confident that though the public may be in favor of the abstract idea of a “secure border,” Trump’s specific recommendations, including the wall, have been met with skepticism, if not downright revulsion.
When it comes to the shutdown, Trump is pursuing an unpopular tactic in favor of an unpopular policy. On immigration, as on so much else, Trump doesn’t represent a silent majority but an extremely vocal minority.
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