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Trump’s Hardline Immigration Stance Got Him To The White House

President Trump’s decision to end the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (better known as DACA) seems like a political loser. Polling shows that most Americans support the program, which protects undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children from deportation, and don’t want participants removed. This includes, in some polls, a plurality of Republicans. That may be why some congressional Republicans have lined up behind a bill that essentially reinstates DACA.

A DACA-like bill could be approved by Congress. But there’s a big force in the way: Anti-immigration sentiment in the Republican Party. DACA may be popular, even among some Republicans, but hardline immigration policy has been growing as an animating force in GOP politics for years. It helped put Trump in the White House.

So looking only at the polling on DACA can be misleading if you’re trying to gauge the chances that the Republican-controlled Congress will replace the program. During policy debates, we sometimes become too focused on individual questions instead of looking at the broader public view. On the issue of gun control, for example, Democrats have liked to point out that background checks have near universal support. Yet, Congress has repeatedly failed to pass a background check bill. Part of the reason: Background checks may poll well, but gun control as a general concept is less popular. Similarly, Republicans tend to poll evenly with Democrats on which party “would do a better job of dealing with” gun policy. In other words, gun policy divides voters along normal partisan lines, making it unlikely that Republicans would be punished for sticking to their position on a specific policy question within that issue.

Immigration is similar to guns in that the Democratic position on many specific immigration policy questions is more popular than the Republican position, but Republicans hold their own on immigration more generally. Much of Trump’s immigration agenda doesn’t poll well: For instance, there isn’t broad support for building a border wall with Mexico, limiting legal immigration or ending DACA. However, recent surveys from George Washington University and Morning Consult found that Democrats and Republicans tend to poll evenly when it comes to which party is trusted more to handle immigration.

Additionally, immigration tends to be an issue that is more important to Republicans than Democrats. The 2016 national exit poll found that Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 31 percentage points among voters who said immigration was the most important issue facing the country. The 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study found that 73 percent of Trump voters said immigration was of “very high importance” to them, compared with 24 percent of Clinton voters. And despite Trump’s rhetoric on immigration and Latinos during the 2016 campaign, he probably did no worse among them than Mitt Romney did in 2012. (And he may have done slightly better.)

So even though DACA is popular, Republicans would be unlikely to face a backlash among their voters — even their more centrist ones — should they refuse to pass a replacement.

Indeed, Republican members of Congress could face a backlash if they pass one — in the form of primary challenges. In recent elections, a hardline stance on immigration has proved to be a winner in Republican primaries. It has been highly correlated with how well GOP senators have done against primary challenges — senators with more hardline positions have done better against primary challengers; those with more moderate views have done worse.

In 2016, moreover, immigration may have been the issue most responsible for Trump’s winning the Republican nomination. In every state with a caucus or primary exit poll, he did best among voters who said immigration was their top issue.1

Immigration drove Trump’s victory in the GOP primary

Trump’s vote share in 2016 primaries and caucuses among voters who listed a given issue as most important

Iowa 2/1 24% 21% 19% 44%
New Hampshire 2/9 32 29 34 53
South Carolina 2/20 36 31 25 51
Nevada 2/23 48 36 37 62
Alabama 3/1 43 44 36 61
Arkansas 3/1 34 34 28 54
Georgia 3/1 39 41 33 57
Massachusetts 3/1 42 50 33 74
Tennessee 3/1 40 44 33 50
Texas 3/1 26 34 21 35
Virginia 3/1 33 34 32 42
Michigan 3/8 38 39 29 62
Mississippi 3/8 48 43 50 56
Florida 3/15 43 48 40 60
Illinois 3/15 37 40 31 69
Missouri 3/15 42 39 32 63
North Carolina 3/15 41 35 35 59
Ohio 3/15 33 34 32 68
Connecticut 4/26 58 59 46 82
Maryland 4/26 54 54 45 73
Pennsylvania 4/26 60 53 50 73
Indiana 5/3 56 54 43 66
Average 41 41 35 60

Exit polls from New York, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin were excluded from analysis because of insufficient sample size. Other contests did not have entrance or exit polls.

Sources: CNN, Edison Research

That’s the GOP’s conundrum on immigration and DACA: The politics of “immigration” would suggest that Republicans let DACA lapse, leaving some of the 800,000 recipients subject to deportation; the politics of DACA more narrowly would argue for passing a bill that grants some of its protections. And lawmakers will probably get pressure from both sides.

Vocal conservative activists such as Ann Coulter and the Federation for American Immigration Reform are against any kind of broad protection from deportation like DACA. Breitbart, the website run in part by former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, has been casting any kind of formalization of DACA policy as “amnesty,” a word that conservatives often invoke to drive up opposition to more liberal immigration proposals among party activists. Conservative activists could still declare that a vote for a DACA replacement both rewards illegal behavior and, in effect, gives Obama a policy win. If that kind of argument takes hold among party activists, it will be hard for congressional Republicans to support this legislation.

But because DACA itself is popular, Republican lawmakers will feel some pressure to pass a bill. Pro-DACA interest groups will be in their ears as well. And it will be difficult to paint law-abiding young adults who have lived in the U.S. for much of their lives as unsympathetic figures.

Whether a bill passes may come down to where House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell land. It’s not clear that either will push for a bill to be approved, and the two congressional leaders have a huge amount of influence on what gets a formal vote. Bringing a bill up that will pass only because of intense Democratic support would be a controversial move for either Republican, leaving both vulnerable to criticism from their party’s base. Ryan did say that he didn’t want Trump to end DACA, but McConnell praised Trump’s decision. McConnell hasn’t said there will be fast congressional approval of a DACA-like bill.

Ryan, though, may be particularly hard-pressed to bring to the floor a DACA-like bill that would be dependent on Democratic votes to pass. U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, a bloc of the chamber’s most conservative members, said in 2015 in a speech and in a letter to Ryan that he released publicly that Ryan had agreed to bring immigration measures to the floor of the House only if they had majority support among Republicans. Ryan has neither confirmed nor denied this.

Ironically, any DACA replacement bill’s fate may be determined by the man who ended the original program: Trump. And while Trump seems to think Obama exceeded his executive authority in implementing DACA, the president has not been clear about where he stands on granting some kind of legal status and protection from deportation for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. After his administration rescinded DACA, Trump called for Congress to take action to replace it and said that if it doesn’t, he may revisit the issue. He even supposedly asked Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, how he could help pass a bill. If Trump were to push hard for a new DACA bill, hesitant Republicans might get on board. Trump has a lot of credibility on the issue of immigration with the Republican base that other Republicans don’t. If, however, Trump were to campaign heavily against replacing DACA, it’s difficult to see how any bill becomes law.


  1. The Cooperative Congressional Election Study tells the same story: Trump received 58 percent of the primary vote from those who said immigration was of “very high importance,” while he received just 30 percent of the vote among all other primary voters.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.