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Polling Matters
Immigration, Public Opinion and Congress
Polling Matters

Immigration, Public Opinion and Congress

The bipartisan, bicameral congressional committee has announced a tentative spending agreement that, if passed by both the House and Senate and signed by President Donald Trump by Friday, will avert a second partial government shutdown.

The committee of 17 senators and other members of Congress no doubt considered many factors during their deliberations. These lawmakers were elected to represent the people of their states and districts, so the views of some of the people of this country were represented in their deliberations, if only indirectly. But how well does what the committee came up with reflect broad American public opinion?

I generally group immigration into three buckets: 1) dealing with the inflow of undocumented immigrants, 2) dealing with immigrants already living in the country illegally, and 3) deciding how many immigrants should be admitted into the country legally. It turns out that the congressional committee focused intently on at least two of these areas in its discussions.

Public Opinion and Border Security

Border security is the aspect of immigration that has received the most attention and that ultimately was at the bottom of the last shutdown.

Americans are fine with the general idea of increased border security. A recent survey by ABC News/Washington Post, for example, showed that a majority of Americans feel too little is being done to keep people from entering the U.S. illegally. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that only about a third of Americans believe the border is secure. And Gallup polling from a few years ago showed that 77% of Americans say it is important to control U.S. borders to halt the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S.

The big question confronting the committee, of course, was just how best to secure the border.

The proposed solution that has received the most attention is the idea of expanding the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The wall has become a symbolic issue that was, in many ways, at the bottom of the 2018-2019 government shutdown. (Worth noting -- the U.S. border with Canada is much longer than the border with Mexico, but it is the latter that has received most of the attention.)

Constructing border barriers is not a new issue. When Gallup asked Americans about building a wall in 1993, long before Trump entered the national political scene, 71% were opposed. By 2006, 56% were against building a wall, virtually the same as today (60% opposed). Other polling shows that Americans believe border security can be achieved without more walls. A recent Quinnipiac poll found that 61% of American voters support spending more money on border security without building a wall and that 59% believe building a wall is not necessary to protect the border. The same percentage in a recent CBS News poll (61%) said the border can be secured without building a wall. Pew Research found that the majority of Americans believe "substantially expanding the wall" would have a minor or no impact on illegal immigration.

The bipartisan committee apparently has agreed to spend about $1.4 billion for "barriers" or "fences" (as news reports have described it). It's possible that public opinion may be more welcoming to those softer descriptions rather than the emotionally charged "wall." For example, a Harvard Harris poll found that 54% of Americans support "building a combination of physical and electronic barriers across the U.S.-Mexico border."

Bottom line: The agreement to cut the allocation for a border barrier down to a relatively small $1.4 billion fits with the prevailing public sentiment, although it appears that many Americans would be OK with no wall money at all.

(At this point, it's unclear if the agreement specifically references other ways in which border security could be enhanced. Gallup recently asked about hiring more border patrol agents and found that three-quarters support the idea. I assume there would be similarly high levels of support for acquiring more electronic and technical capabilities to help stop the inflow of illegal immigration. But I haven't seen polling supporting that idea.)

Dealing With Immigrants Living in the U.S. Illegally

The bipartisan committee focused on more than just the wall. News reports indicate that a major committee disagreement centered on the challenge of dealing with people already living in this country illegally. This included the apparently tricky sticking point of the number of "detention beds" to be included as part of the agreement. This number of detention beds is directly related to the number of illegal immigrants who can be arrested and detained.

I am not aware of any current public opinion polling on detention beds. This is one of those issues on which the average American, and most likely the average elected official, doesn't have a great deal of precise knowledge. More generally, however, we know that about six in 10 Americans oppose the idea of deporting "all immigrants who are living in the United States illegally." I don't think anyone on the committee was proposing that type of massive effort. But obviously discussions of proposals to deport some illegal immigrants were highly contentious.

Americans' opposition to the idea of deporting illegal immigrants likely stems from the fact -- confirmed in many measures of public opinion over the years -- that Americans support the idea of finding a pathway to citizenship for those living in the country illegally.

A few years ago, Gallup found a slightly higher priority given to the idea of dealing with immigrants living in the U.S. illegally than to the idea of halting the flow of immigrants coming into the country illegally. Most recently, Gallup's update shows that over eight in 10 Americans favor allowing undocumented immigrants "the chance to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements over a period of time." Quinnipiac polling last year showed that two-thirds agreed that illegal immigrants currently living in the U.S. "should be allowed to stay in the United States and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship." That's as opposed to the other two options offered -- allowing them to stay but not apply for U.S. citizenship, or requiring them to leave.

The polls also show overwhelming support for allowing those who were brought here illegally as children to remain in the U.S. Almost eight in 10 Americans in the same Quinnipiac poll last year supported the idea of "allowing undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children to remain in the United States and eventually apply for citizenship."

The American public, it appears, is most likely in favor of a mixed approach to immigrants living in the country illegally. That would include some effort to deport illegal immigrants (presumably in particular those who break laws and commit crimes), with a bigger effort to develop a pathway to citizenship for those living here illegally. Apparently, the congressional committee was also in favor of a mixed approach, but had trouble deciding on exactly what that mix should be.

Unanswered Questions on Legal Immigration

The bipartisan committee didn't get around to addressing legal immigration per se. If it had, public guidance would have been less clear-cut. The data show very mixed views from the American people about whether legal immigration should be expanded, reduced or kept the same.

Trump surprised some listeners in his State of the Union address when he said, "I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally."

As Gallup's Jim Clifton recently reviewed, there is tremendous interest among Latin American countries in migrating to the United States. This presents both opportunities and challenges for policymakers, depending on what value America chooses to place on immigration.

Americans agree in principle that immigration is a good thing for America -- more than at any time in Gallup's history of asking the question. Previous Gallup research has also shown that Americans in general say immigration is good for the economy, that immigrants don't take jobs away from Americans and that immigrants don't affect wage levels.

But there is no apparent groundswell of interest for increasing the level of immigration. Our latest Gallup update showed that 30% of Americans say they want immigration increased. This comes in response to a three-part question that also allows Americans to say immigration should be kept as it is (37% choose this alternative) or decreased (31%).

As Congress and the president consider the bipartisan committee's recommendations, they need to keep in mind that Americans overwhelmingly favor protecting the border, although with skepticism about the need for new border walls. Americans also overwhelmingly favor approaches for allowing undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. to stay here. And, while recognizing that immigration is good for the country, Americans have mixed views about changing the level of legal immigration.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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