Presidential candidate Donald Trump brought the issue of immigration back into the forefront of the news media focus with his June 16 announcement speech, including his widely-quoted views on illegal immigrants from Mexico.
What do we know about the context of public opinion into which Trump's comments were dropped?
For one thing, we know that immigration is not seen as the top problem facing the nation today by most Americans, but it is perceived as an important issue.
- Seven percent of Americans say immigration is the most important problem facing the country today. That may not seem like a high number, but at the moment there is no one dominant problem in the minds of American, and immigration actually comes in as the fourth-most-frequently mentioned problem, behind the economy, dissatisfaction with government and race relations. This month, immigration is mentioned as the top problem by one percentage point more Americans than is unemployment/jobs. Immigration flares up from time to time on this most important problem measure. Last July it was at 17% of all mentions, for example. Republicans are only slightly more likely than Democrats to mention immigration as the nation's top problem.
- In March, we gave Americans a list of 15 problems and asked how much they personally worry about each. "Illegal immigration" was ninth on the list, with 39% saying they worried about it "a great deal." That contrasts with the top problems -- healthcare and the economy -- about which 54% and 53%, respectively, of the public said they worried about a great deal.
- In January of each year, we ask Americans how satisfied they are with the state of the nation with regard to a list of different aspects of life in American today. The list this past January included 27 different aspects. Satisfaction with immigration was seventh from the bottom with only 33% saying they were satisfied. To put that in context, one of the highest levels of satisfaction was for the nation's military strength and preparedness at 69%, followed by satisfaction with opportunities to get ahead by working hard, at 60%, and then by satisfaction with the nation's security from terrorism, at 59%. Anchoring the bottom of the list was the nation's efforts to deal with poverty and homelessness, with 26% satisfied.
- And, a Gallup survey conducted in 2014 showed that immigration, compared with other concerns, had modestly below-average importance among registered voters as an issue for Congress to deal with.
All of this suggests that Trump's focus on immigration in his controversial campaign announcement remarks are focused on an issue that -- while not the very top problem on the public's radar -- is at least one of a cluster of mid-range issues of concern to Americans.
Trump's specific focus was on illegal immigrants coming across the nation's border. The idea of doing more to secure the country's borders to prevent illegal immigrants is something most Americans will agree with -- perhaps because it's hard to disagree with a proposal to do more to stop something that is illegal. Last year we found that 77% of Americans said it was "extremely" or "very important" than the government take steps to control U.S. borders to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S., with 43% saying it was extremely important. Other Gallup research conducted in the last couple of years showed that more than eight in 10 favored new laws that would tighten security at U.S. borders.
So Trump's general focus on taking more actions to curtail the flow of people coming into this country across the southern border certainly, in a general sense, fits with American public opinion. Trump didn't mention the other approach to illegal immigration, the one central to the focus of President Barack Obama's administration and many other political figures. That would be the status of those illegal immigrants already in this country. By a 14-point margin, Americans say the main focus of the U.S. government in dealing with the issue of illegal immigration should be on developing a plan to deal with immigrants who are currently in the U.S. illegally, rather than developing a plan for halting the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S.
And, 87% say they favor new laws that would allow immigrants already in the country to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements including paying taxes, having a criminal background check and learning English.
So Trump's approach to immigration -- at least as enunciated in his announcement speech -- deals with only part of what the public perceives is important.
The most controversial part of Trump's statement was his negative description of the immigrants who were coming across the border, characterizing some of them as rapists and individuals bringing drugs and crime with them. We don't have any recent, direct Gallup data assessing Americans' views of the moral character and rectitude of illegal immigrants coming across the border from Mexico.
From a broad perspective, we know that Americans believe immigration is good for the country. In our latest update from last summer, 63% said that, on the whole, immigration is a "good thing" rather than a "bad thing" for this country today. That number has fluctuated over the past 14 years, but in every instance at least a majority of Americans say that immigration is good for the country. (Worth noting here is the fact that Trump's mother herself was an immigrant from Scotland and his grandfather was an immigrant from Germany.) And, in a broad sense, fewer Americans in recent years have said that immigration into this country should be decreased than has been the case in previous years, particularly in the 1990s and in the years after 9/11. So, there is a clear distinction between the issue of illegal immigration and those coming across the nation's borders without permission, and legal immigration, which continues to be viewed positively.
We have an early read on the public's views of Trump's ability to handle immigration, and it's not very positive. Forty-eight percent say he would do a "bad job" in handling immigration, with 18% saying he would do a "fair job," leaving 29%, mostly Republicans, who say he would do a "good job."
Where does this leave us? It does not appear that Americans will perceive immigration as the dominant issue in the 2016 presidential race, but it clearly is positioned to be one of several topics that will have modestly high priority. Trump's general call for stricter controls at the border most likely hits a responsive chord with Americans, most of whom accept that this is good policy as a matter of principle. What the public thinks about his caustic comments about the characteristics of those people who are coming into the U.S. illegally is not clear at this point. The public is just as interested in plans to deal with illegal immigrants who are already in this country as they are in stopping the inflow of those coming in illegally, something Trump did not discuss.