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Polling Matters
Can a 'Nation of Immigrants' Reform 21st-Century Immigration?
Polling Matters

Can a 'Nation of Immigrants' Reform 21st-Century Immigration?

by V. Lance Tarrance

President Donald Trump's Rust Belt-fueled victory in 2016 sprang from his staunch commitment to protecting American jobs, in part by curbing and controlling immigration. Trump has swiftly begun to follow through on one of his key promises -- to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He also issued two executive directives for the Homeland Security Department detailing a new administrative launch and expansion of deportation policies for undocumented residents.

The consequence of Trump governing almost exactly as he campaigned is that his job approval rating is hovering not too far below his 46% level of support in the popular vote. To maintain even this modest approval rating, however, he will need, at a minimum, to hold his currently broad Republican base. That will involve satisfying the interests of two different educational camps within the party that don't always agree. There is an upper-educated group of Republicans that consists of those with a four-year college degree or at least some postgraduate education -- about 30% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, according to 2016 Gallup data. The remaining 70% are what we might call the "average educated" -- those with, at most, a high school degree or some college experience but no college degree.

The Democratic Party has a similar divide: 35% are upper educated and 65% average educated. The average educated dominate both parties in numbers, if not always in policy influence. Journalists working the 2016 presidential campaign generally referred to the average educated as "working-class voters" and deemed them pivotal to Trump's success, although Gallup research shows that less than a third of Americans overall label themselves working class.

The two Republican educational camps largely agree with Trump's premise that the nation cannot support the current level of new immigrants -- whether legal or undocumented. More than six in 10 upper-educated Republicans and seven in 10 average-educated Republicans told Gallup in January 2016 that they were dissatisfied with the overall level of immigration into the U.S. This contrasts with 75% of upper-educated Democrats and 62% of average-educated Democrats feeling either satisfied with the current level of immigration or wanting it expanded.

Satisfaction With Level of Immigration Into the U.S.
Satisfied/Should increase Dissatisfied/Should decrease
% %
Upper educated 30 63
Average educated 24 72
Upper educated 75 18
Average educated 62 32
Gallup, Jan. 6-10, 2016

Republicans are similarly unified on the grand priority for immigration -- whether the main focus should be on securing the border or addressing the status of immigrants already here illegally. Gallup polling finds Republicans in both educational groups agreeing strongly with Trump's emphasis on first halting illegal immigration at the border before dealing with immigrants already living in the country illegally: 63% of upper-educated Republicans and 61% of average-educated Republicans say this should be the priority.

Democrats are united around a completely different view on this matter, as both upper- and average-educated Democrats prioritize dealing with the illegal immigrants already residing in the U.S. -- presumably by offering some type of amnesty and citizenship (69% and 61%, respectively, both favor dealing with illegal immigrants already here).

Main Focus in Dealing With Illegal Immigration
Halt flow into U.S. Deal with resident illegals
% %
Upper educated 63 35
Average educated 61 35
Upper educated 28 69
Average educated 35 61
Gallup, June 7-July 1, 2016

Trump must now turn to the difficult and complex task of formulating an actual policy for immigration reform that carries campaign politics and cultural history as "nervous passengers."

In terms of building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border (California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas), both upper- and average-educated Republicans favor its construction (51% and 66%, respectively). Average-educated Republicans, however, are nearly twice as likely as upper-educated Republicans to "strongly favor" a border wall: 41% vs. 23%. Meanwhile, the vast majority of upper- and average-educated Democrats oppose such a wall (95% and 83%, respectively).

The second part of immigration reform has to do with handling illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S. The Trump administration has already initiated new deportation orders, with priority being given to deporting illegal immigrants who have criminal records or who have been accused of crimes but not yet convicted. However, if Trump moves beyond this and tries to deport all undocumented immigrants as he promised during his campaign, he could face internal backlash. Only a slight majority of average-educated Republicans (55%) support deporting all illegal immigrants, while a slight majority of upper-educated Republicans (56%) oppose it. Majorities of both educational groups of Democrats (79% of upper educated and 60% of average educated) also oppose.

Achieving comprehensive immigration reform will depend on how Trump navigates this issue. While upper-educated Republicans are generally aligned with Democrats against mass deportation, a slight majority among Trump's all-important average-educated base view the matter differently. Keeping this campaign promise could present a real political challenge for Trump, to say nothing of the cultural chaos that would result if large numbers of illegal immigrants were removed from their jobs, communities and, in some cases, their families. It could affect Republicans' chances of holding both chambers of Congress in 2018 as well as their occupancy of the White House in 2020.

Trump's way forward may be to play to Republicans' support for the American value of cultural pluralism. Although a slight majority of average-educated Republicans side with deporting all illegal immigrants, they still believe that immigration in general is good for the U.S. and indicate a willingness to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently living here.

Contrary to the deep partisan divides that surfaced in the campaign on the general direction for immigration reform, both Republicans and Democrats seem to honor the country's long-standing positive view of the value of immigration, saying that immigration is mostly good for the country rather than bad. This includes 54% of average-educated Republicans and 72% of upper-educated Republicans -- along with most Democrats, regardless of education.

Views on Immigration Being Good or Bad for U.S.
Good Bad Net "good"
% % (pct. pts.)
Upper educated 72 25 +47
Average educated 54 43 +11
Upper educated 92 7 +85
Average educated 77 19 +58
Gallup, June 7-July 1, 2016

When asked if illegal immigrants should be given the chance to become U.S. citizens, large majorities of all four party/education groups agree they should. While that may seem to contradict average-educated Republicans' support for mass deportation, it indicates a degree of ambivalence that gives Trump room to maneuver.

Allowing Illegal Immigrants a Chance to Become U.S. Citizens
Favor Oppose
% %
Upper educated 78 23
Average educated 75 25
Upper educated 96 4
Average educated 91 10
Gallup, June 7-July 1, 2016

Bottom Line

Donald Trump won the presidency on a strong anti-illegal immigrant platform. His success in office -- both on this issue and others -- may depend on how well he satisfies the policy desires of the two educational segments within his own party: the large group of average-educated Republicans who tend to mirror his ideological leanings, and the smaller group of upper-educated Republicans whom he may sometimes have to tow along. Trump has the unified backing of both Republican groups for focusing first on halting illegal immigration (over dealing with immigrants currently here). Both Republican groups are also broadly dissatisfied with the current level of immigration into the country, meaning they may welcome Trump's attempts to limit it. At the same time, upper-educated Republicans are not as supportive as average-educated Republicans in terms of building a border wall and deporting illegal immigrants.

Given unified Democratic opposition to both policies, Trump risks trouble (both in passing legislation, and politically in 2018 and 2020) if he only sticks with his comparatively less-educated base on these policies. On the other hand, straying too far from those positions could risk "going back on his campaign promises" and thus anger his core supporters.

Trump can likely hold his Republican base together as he refashions U.S. immigration policy so long as he doesn't follow through with mass deportation. He could possibly go even further and bring the two parties together by bending to many Americans' celebration of immigration and their willingness to extend the opportunity of citizenship. Reaching consensus on immigration policy could be the first of many compromises by this deal-making president.


V. Lance Tarrance is a Gallup contributor.

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