The Republican Stance on Immigration Is Evolving
A generational divide marks a shift in primary voters’ views on the divisive issue.
Republican voters’ views on immigration are changing.
A new survey released on Tuesday by the Public Religion Research Institute found younger Republicans are more likely to see immigrants as a boon to the United States than Republicans older than 30. In fact, among those 65 and older, only 22 percent share the belief that “immigrants strengthen American society” compared with 51 percent of Republicans ages 18 to 29. The generational divide is not only evident in attitudes about how immigrants fit into American society, but also on immigration reform itself—all of which might provide a glimpse into the future of the Republican Party.
Immigration has been a hot-button issue this election cycle. Donald Trump notoriously made it a central pillar of his presidential platform, declaring that he’d build a wall (to be paid for by Mexico) and deport the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. His hard-line stance on immigration worked. It attracted notable congressional endorsements, like those from Senator Jeff Sessions and Representative Duncan Hunter, and subsequently forced his rivals to take hard-right positions on the issue as well. Take Ted Cruz: He toughened his position on immigration—going from supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants to “leading the fight against amnesty”—and said that he too would deport undocumented immigrants. And it all appears to be paying off in votes.
In general, the party shares a negative view of immigration, according to the survey’s findings, which were gathered from 42,586 telephone interviews between April 2015 and January 2016. Among Republicans, 53 percent said that immigrants “constitute a threat to traditional American customs and values,” according to the survey. But when broken down, a contrast between conservative, moderate, and liberal Republicans emerges. Among conservative Republicans, for example, 58 percent have an unfavorable view of immigrants, but only 45 percent of moderate Republicans and 41 percent of liberal Republicans agree.
On immigration reform, the age divide resurfaces. The numbers have stayed fairly stable throughout 2015 when it comes to what Republicans think should be done about illegal immigration—whether immigrants should be allowed to become citizens after meeting certain requirements, should be identified and deported, or should be allowed to become permanent legal residents. A majority of younger Republicans “support providing immigrants currently living in the country illegally a path to citizenship,” compared with 47 percent of GOP seniors. This is to say, the hard-line stance on immigration adopted by candidates in pursuit of the White House may not resonate with the next generation of the GOP, which will soon make up a bigger fraction of the Republican electorate.
It’s unclear how this affects the 2016 race, if at all. While the survey didn’t mention candidates, its findings coincide with the trends seen thus far in the presidential primary. Trump and Cruz have swept several states, far outpacing their rivals (many of whom have since exited the race). In reviewing the electorate in some of those states, age was a key factor. As shown on Super Tuesday, for example, voters 65 and older helped Trump emerge as the victor in seven of the 11 states. And in Massachusetts, a state with a largely white electorate, he raked around 52 percent of the vote from age groups 45 to 64 and 65 and older.
In addition to age, the survey also sheds some light on the characteristics of voters who are attracted to the immigration policies put forward by Trump and Cruz. White evangelical Protestants are most likely to share the view that immigrants be deported. Also in that category: voters who are older, white, have a high-school degree or less, and fall under the conservative-Republican rubric. It’s the voter bloc that Trump and Cruz have courted and successfully attained.
To be sure, there’s no indication that these voters will shift their views in this election cycle, but it does signal a change for the Republican Party as younger voters more tolerant of immigration get older. Even among young white evangelical Protestants, 55 percent said, “Newcomers from other countries strengthen American society,” drawing a contrast from the majority of senior white evangelicals.
Taken altogether, what does this mean for the party moving forward? Only time can tell, but it could mean the voter bloc supporting Trump and Cruz today will be gone tomorrow.