The most fascinating phenomena of American politics is the increasingly anti-immigration opinions of politicians like Donald Trump that contrasts with an increasingly pro-immigrant public opinion. Gallup has asked the same poll question on immigration since 1965: “In your view, should immigration be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased?” Gallup’s question does not separate legal from illegal immigration, likely meaning that answers to this question undercount support for increasing legal immigration. They recently released their 2018 poll results. The support for increasing legal immigration is at 28 percent – the highest point ever (Figure 1). Support for increasing immigration is just one point below support for decreasing immigration – well within the 3-point margin of error (95% CI).
Gallup: Should Immigration Be Kept at Its Present Level, Increased, or Decreased?
The Gallup trend is the clearest and best for those of us who support increasing immigration but the General Social Survey shows a similar directional trend – although not nearly so dramatic (Figure 2).
GSS: Should Immigration Be Kept at Its Present Level, Increased, or Decreased?
Source: General Social Survey.
If the public is increasingly pro-immigration, why is the GOP so opposed to immigration? It can’t be radically divergent opinions across partisan lines. According to the Gallup poll, 65 percent of Republicans think immigration is good for the country compared to 85 percent of Democrats.
Another possibility is that anti-immigration voters care a lot more about the issue than pro-immigration voters and are willing to change their votes based on it. For pro-immigration voters, immigration just isn’t their biggest issue. The Gallup poll hints at this as 55 percent of those who are dissatisfied with the current immigration levels want to cut the numbers while only 22 percent who are dissatisfied want to increase the numbers.
Another issue is causality as anti-immigration politicians could be pushing moderate Americans into a more pro-immigration position. The crude language used by nativists, such as President Trump’s description of illegal immigrants as an infestation, can turn off a lot of voters in the same way that the Prop 187 campaign in California in the mid-1990s convinced a lot of white voters to not support the GOP. This is the exact worry that Reihan Salam, a moderate restrictionist, voiced. The spokesman for political issues matters and Trump is not a very good one.
Another potential explanation is the "locus of brutality," a riff on the locus of control literature that says voters are more supportive of liberalized immigration when they perceive it to be controlled. Under that theory, border chaos, illegal immigration, refugee surges, and the perception of immigrant-induced chaos increases support for restriction. Thus, countries with open immigration are mostly able to maintain those policies so long as it appears orderly. Since disorder usually arises from poor government laws, this means that more regulation can make it more chaotic and create demand for more legislation in an endless cycle. That locus of control pattern could be countered by the brutality of immigration enforcement such that voters become more pro-immigration when they are confronted with the government's brutal enforcement of immigration laws. Prison camps for immigrant children thus create support for liberalization.
My final theory is that this is the last gasp of nativism. Lots of dying political movements that are terminally ill due to shifting public opinion go all out as it is their last chance to get elected. Think George Wallace and segregation. During the 2016 campaign, then-Senator Jeff Sessions said that that was the “last chance for Americans to get control of their government.” When it comes to changes in the public trends and support for cutting immigration, he is probably correct.
The public is becoming increasingly pro-immigration. The Democratic Party is increasingly reflecting that changing public opinion while the Republican Party is getting an increasing percentage of that shrinking but sizable anti-immigration minority. There will come a point, should public opinion continue to support increasing immigration, where both parties will adopt this position.