On Wednesday, President Trump made good on his campaign promise to crack down on illegal immigration, signing executive orders that will commence the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and eliminate federal funding to “sanctuary cities.” He also took some first steps to ramp up deportations of immigrants who are living in the country illegally by increasing the number of immigration patrol and enforcement officers and expanding priority deportations to include those with even minor criminal offenses. And Trump has promised more, including dismantling the Obama administration’s deferred action programs that were designed to keep children together with their parents by protecting them from deportation if they met certain requirements and registered with the government.
But lost amid the anti-immigrant bluster of his campaign, the flurry of executive orders, and the whirlwind of partisan politics in Washington, is a stubborn fact: Very few Americans, and even few Republicans, say their preferred policy solution to the country’s illegal immigration problem is the deportation of an estimated 11 million people. That is the clear result of a study based on over 120,000 interviews with Americans—including 40,509 conducted during the 2016 campaign—that was conducted by my organization, PRRI, over the last three years.
Through the ups and downs of immigration-reform legislation and even under the darker shadows of the 2016 election season, American opinions about concrete policy solutions have remained remarkably stable. When asked about how the immigration system should deal with immigrants who are currently living in the country illegally, the new study found nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of Americans say we should allow them a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, and another 15 percent say we should allow them a way to become permanent legal residents but not citizens. Only 16 percent of Americans, and only 28 percent of Republicans, say their preferred policy option is to identify and deport those who are living in the country without legal documentation.
If these findings seem surprising, it is because they are certainly dissonant with the loudest rhetoric around immigration in the country today. But they are corroborated by poll after poll. A CBS News poll released last week found nearly identical results. When asked about what to do about illegal immigrants living in the country today, 61 percent say they should be allowed to stay in the U.S. and eventually apply for citizenship, and another 13 percent say they should be allowed to stay in the U.S. legally, but not be allowed to apply for citizenship. Only 22 percent of Americans, and only 37 percent of Republicans, say they should be required to leave the U.S. A two-way question in a Gallup poll conducted last June found that 84 percent of Americans favor allowing immigrants living in the U.S. illegally the chance to become U.S. citizens if they meet certain requirements over a period of time. Among Republicans, 76 percent favored a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, compared to 24 percent who opposed it.
While the depictions of immigrants at the two political party conventions this summer could not have been more stark—murderers killing neighbors at the first, and soldiers dying for their country at the second—these surveys are reminders that the differences between everyday Americans on this issue are more of degree than kind. Even conservative Republicans, for example, are twice as likely to support some legal recognition for illegal immigrants than to support deportation.
And even in states where Trump’s assertion that he won in a landslide is true, these patterns persist. In West Virginia, which Trump won by 42 percentage points, only 29 percent favor deportation; and in Oklahoma, which Trump won by 36 percentage points, only 20 percent favor deportation as their preferred policy solution. There is no state in the country—whether red, purple, or blue—in which a majority prefers deportation as the means of solving the country’s illegal immigration problem.
It turns out that even though Democrats and Republicans have different concerns about the economic and cultural impact of immigrants, Americans of both parties approach solutions to this thorny problem with a heavy dose of realism and practicality. They understand that many illegal immigrants have been here for decades, harvesting American crops, constructing our buildings, and cleaning our houses—all with eyes fixed on a better future for their kids. Regardless of their policy preference, seven in 10 Americans say it would be “very difficult” to deport everyone who is living in the country illegally. Of course, Democrats and Republicans may come to this conclusion by different paths. Democrats and liberals tend to focus on the humanitarian impacts of what a massive deportation program would mean for immigrant families who are often of mixed legal status. And Republicans and conservatives voice concerns that such an undertaking would require one of the most expensive and massive government programs ever launched.
The key to understanding these surprising numbers is to understand that most Americans approach the issue of immigration not ideologically but from a place of pragmatism tempered by compassion. There were ugly, nativist elements in this election, and some found a home in Trump’s campaign. These fearful and reactionary tendencies have historically appeared under the banner of populism. But if Trump wants to truly give the government back to the people, as he claimed in his inaugural address, he must understand that a harsh deportation regime does not represent the views of the country, or even of his own supporters.
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