I recently reviewed Reihan Salam’s Melting Pot or Civil War? A Son of Immigrants Makes the Case Against Open Borders. My review is critical, but there is one major point on immigration that Salam gets right elsewhere: President Donald Trump will undermine the cause of immigration restriction. Trump’s ugly rhetoric from the beginning, his administration’s casual and unnecessary cruelty in the case of child separations, his pandering with the Muslim travel ban, and his consistent call for a wall that will not slow down the flow of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers who turn themselves in to Border Patrol, are all potentially undermining immigration restriction. Immigration is getting more popular.
Gallup has been asking the same question on immigration since 1965:
Thinking now about immigrants -- that is, people who come from other countries to live here in the United States, in your view, should immigration be kept at its present level, increased or decreased?
Since Trump was elected in 2016, the percentage of Americans who wanted increased immigration has risen by 9 percentage points from 21 percent to 30 percent (Figure 1). Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans who want less immigration has fallen from 38 percent to 31 percent. In other words, the difference between those who want to increase immigration and those who want to decrease it currently lies within the statistical margin of error. The percentage of those who want to keep immigration at the present level has stayed constant over that time. The last time support for increased immigration climbed that much in so short a time was between 2011 and 2014, during a debate over a major reform bill in Congress. Although the pro-reform side did not convince Congress to liberalize immigration law, they may have changed the minds of many Americans.
The current and gradual shift toward the pro-immigration opinion is especially large compared to 1993 when only 6 percent of Americans wanted to increase immigration and 65 percent wanted to decrease it. Since then, the percentage of Americans who want more legal immigration has increased 5-fold while the percentage of those who want to cut immigration has more than halved.
One criticism of the above Gallup question is that it asks about all immigration, which also includes illegal immigration. Anecdotally, many people tell me that the question is bad because it doesn’t specify legal immigration and that support for legal immigration is much higher. Gallup asked the same question about LEGAL immigration in 2018 and the results were barely different from the ALL immigration question (Table 1). Fewer people support decreasing legal immigration and more support increasing it, but the difference is minor. Bottom line: Most people who read the “all immigration” question understand that it includes “legal immigrants” and isn’t limited to just illegal immigrants. The group of Americans who is “very opposed to illegal immigration and very supportive of legal immigration” is likely small.
Gallup has a suggestive and intermittently asked poll where they attempt to gauge the public perception of the threat that illegal immigrants pose. In 2019, 47 percent said that it was “critical” (the highest threat level), but that is below the 50 percent who rated it as “critical” in 2004. Looking at the two Gallup poll results, some of the people who think that illegal entry is a critical threat do not want to cut immigration. This has potentially important implications for whether the perception of chaos is a driver of immigration opinion.
Pew asks a slightly different question about whether immigrants strengthen the country or are a burden. The responses to that question (Figure 2) are probably closely correlated with support for increased immigration. Since Donald Trump started his campaign in 2015, the public’s positive opinion of immigrants has risen substantially. There were increases in the pro-immigration opinion of similar magnitude before, but the Trump-effect could be driving them today.
The General Social Survey did not ask about people’s opinion on immigration in 2018, but the Gallup and Pew polls convincingly show that Americans are becoming more supportive of increasing immigration and that Trump has probably helped that transformation along. Some of the shift in public opinion is likely a partisan reaction among Democrats to a Republican president whose main issue is restricting immigration. However, Democrats started becoming more pro-immigration over a decade ago, so it’s also a shift in their ideology.
Public opinion matters in our political system because the opinions of the median voter basically determine policy in the long run. The rise in support for increasing legal immigration, partly because of the Trump administration, is great for the country and bad for immigration restrictionists.