Immigration was perhaps the defining issue of President Donald Trump’s campaign. It was the center of his June 2015 announcement speech. Two months later, immigration reform remained the only item listed under “positions” on his campaign website. And in August 2016, when many political observers expected Trump to soften his stance for the general election, Trump instead doubled down on his tough, restriction-oriented position.
On Wednesday, Trump began to make good on that rhetoric, issuing two executive orders that seek to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and allow federal agents to detain and deport more unauthorized immigrants. Although Trump’s position on immigration is well known, it’s harder to determine how the public feels. And while many think that Trump’s election reflects an anti-immigration turn in public attitudes, the opposite is closer to the truth. Various polls have shown that a majority of Americans support a pathway to citizenship and oppose a wall along the southern border. Data from the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics panel survey, however, allows us to track more subtle shifts in individual opinions. Those results show that Americans became more liberal on immigration at exactly the time that Trump and the Republicans turned more hard-line.
I used the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics panel survey, which I’ve written about before, to examine what 1,227 American adults over the age of 25 have thought about immigration over the last several years. Our panel has asked the same questions of the same respondents repeatedly, so we’re sure we are observing actual changes in attitudes rather than changes in people’s willingness to take a survey. The chart below shows how the respondents rated themselves, the 2012 candidates and the 2016 parties1 on a scale from 1 to 7, where 1 indicates wanting to “return illegal immigrants to their native countries” and 7 indicates wanting to create a pathway that allows undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens.
Overall, respondents rated the Democratic Party at a 5.97 in October 2016,2 which is slightly more in favor of a path to citizenship than the 5.74 rating these same respondents gave President Obama in October 2012.3 For the Republicans, the shift was more pronounced, though it was in the opposite direction, as respondents rated Mitt Romney at 2.94 in 2012, dropping to 2.15 for the GOP in 2016. Had we asked specifically about Trump, the movement might well have been even greater. Americans very clearly saw the GOP’s turn against unauthorized immigration.
As respondents assessed the candidates’ or parties’ positions, they were also asked about their own views. In 2012, our respondents rated themselves at 3.63, on average, placing them on the pro-deportation side of the scale. They were, in short, substantially closer to what they perceived as Romney’s position than to Obama’s. By October 2016, they had moved to 3.99, placing them at the center of the scale — but still slightly closer to the Republicans than to the Democrats.
You might remember that after Romney’s 2012 loss, the Republican National Committee commissioned an autopsy that concluded that immigration was a major liability for the GOP. According to the report, the Republican Party had to support comprehensive immigration reform or it would continue losing voters. But it turns out that Romney’s position was closer to that of our average respondent than Obama’s — or than either the Democrats’ or Republicans’ positions by the end of the 2016 campaign.
That’s not the only unexpected finding. With Trump taking a more hard-line stance than Romney, we might have expected some Americans to likewise shift against a pathway to citizenship, but that’s not what happened. Instead, Republicans and Democrats alike became more pro-pathway between 2012 and 2016, and much of that uptick occurred during the 2016 campaign. This is a common phenomenon: When a politician advocates for a policy proposal, American opinion sometimes moves in the opposite direction.4
What about Trump’s proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border? Recent polling suggests that the idea is unpopular: A Washington Post poll from earlier this month had 37 percent of respondents in support, while recent polls from CBS News, Pew Research and Quinnipiac University reported roughly similar splits.
Here, too, our panel indicates that support has dropped. At various points in the last eight years, we have asked members of our panel to rate their support for increasing border security “by building a fence along part of the U.S. border with Mexico” on a four-point scale. This wording has always garnered majorities in support — maybe a partial fence is more appealing than a complete wall — but here, too, support has fallen among Democrats and Republicans alike. The decline is slightly stronger among Democrats, but it is noticeable among Republicans, too.
Trump was certainly not the first candidate to make immigration central to his campaign for office. The issue is a powerful tool for populists throughout the developed world, as it can generate a strong sense of antipathy aimed at political elites who are presumed to be colluding at the expense of the average worker. The issue has a particular potency on the American right, and it certainly helped Trump distinguish himself in the GOP primaries.
Many expect that one of Trump’s next moves will be to restrict the flow of refugees and immigration generally from several predominantly Muslim countries. There, too, we see some precedent in public opinion. In late 2011 and early 2012, Jens Hainmueller and I administered a survey experiment to a representative sample of Americans to see what types of immigrants they preferred to admit to the U.S. Given how much public rhetoric focuses on immigration from Mexico, we thought that immigrants from Mexico might generate more opposition than those from elsewhere. Instead, it was immigrants from Iraq who generated the strongest opposition.
Still, it is wrong to read Trump’s November victory as an endorsement of his immigration policies. In fact, over the course of the 2016 campaign, supporters of both major parties have moved away from supporting a border fence and deportation, the two policies at the heart of Trump’s first executive actions on immigration.