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Polling Matters
Want to Solve Immigration? Listen to the People
Polling Matters

Want to Solve Immigration? Listen to the People

The 27% of Americans who named immigration as the most important problem facing the nation in April follow the 28% citing it in February and March -- levels on par with the highest mentions of immigration in Gallup’s extensive Most Important Problem trend. A separate question in Gallup’s March poll shows that worry about illegal immigration is higher than at any point since we began measuring it in 2001.

This broad concern over immigration stems from two major issues. Border security is the first -- as thousands of migrants seeking admission to the U.S. overwhelm the country’s ability to handle them. Second, what to do about the millions of immigrants already living illegally in the U.S.?

Data on the first of these issues are straightforward. Americans support almost any actions that would stop people from coming into the U.S. illegally. According to recent polling, this includes support for more Border Patrol agents, using the military if necessary and building more walls.

As it happens, the spending bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden on March 23 follows the people’s advice on this front. The bill increases the U.S. Customs and Border Protection budget and spending on reducing the backlog created by those seeking refugee and asylum status in the U.S. This is an excellent example of legislation passed by elected representatives that is in sync with the views of the American public.

The second immigration issue -- what to do with immigrants already in this country illegally -- is more complicated. Americans see merit in proposals both to deport such immigrants and to provide them with a pathway to legal status.

These dueling results on dealing with immigrants already in this country reinforce the dangers of narrowly focusing on selected polling. Using deportation poll results as a justification for a deportation policy is incomplete, given the positive polling on a pathway to citizenship. And calling for a pathway policy using pathway polling data is unwarranted without taking note of the public’s support for deportation. This underscores one of the cardinal rules of polling: All of us -- pollsters, journalists, social scientists and politicians alike -- need to review and synthesize multiple results to gain the best understanding of what the public is telling us on any given topic.

In this situation, the public appears to recognize the practical merit in deporting immigrants living in this country illegally (they have, after all, broken the law). But, at the same time, the American public sees philosophical merit in finding a way for such immigrants to earn their way to permanent residency and citizenship.

In fact, a quarter of Americans (26%) in a 2019 Gallup poll simultaneously held these two seemingly opposing attitudes -- favoring deporting all immigrants living in the U.S. illegally while at the same time supporting allowing those same immigrants a chance to become U.S. citizens. An AP/NORC survey from February 2023 found similar attitudes about the priority that should be given to both deportation and allowing those here illegally to remain in the country.

This is not unusual. Seemingly conflicting results represent the public’s appreciation of often-complex realities. Major social and economic problems rarely have cut-and-dried solutions. There is usually at least some merit in differing ways of dealing with problems. The highly polarized approach taken by partisan ideologues (“My view is the only one with merit”) is naïve. Tradeoffs between competing policies are necessary. The American public as a whole, and to its credit, clearly recognizes these facts when it comes to immigration issues.

As a result, the public’s message to their elected representatives is complex: Create a broad plan where some or most immigrants can legally remain if they meet certain qualifications, and deport immigrants who do not meet these qualifications. Couple this with a vigorous ramp-up in border security and processing so that such immigrants have less of a chance of getting into the country in the first place.

My reading of the data shows that above all else, Americans are in favor of competence, meaning they want to see the government executing its duties efficiently and effectively, according to the nation’s laws. If the laws are murky, as is the case for immigrants already living illegally in this country, Americans want clarifications that can allow the government to operate without the ambiguity that surrounds the situation today. And, if laws dealing with immigrants seeking asylum and refugee status are also murky or difficult to enforce, Americans want a similarly effective system for clearing up that situation at the border.

Americans recognize that immigrants provide value to the nation. And Gallup polling from 2023 shows that the majority of Americans are sympathetic to “people from other countries who travel to the U.S. border in an attempt to enter the U.S.” But Americans are also wary of immigration if it is not carefully controlled. Policies the government develops to deal with immigration need to keep all of these aspects of public opinion in mind.

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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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