One thing that strikes me about the discussion of immigration is how immigration is often discussed at the extremes, while public opinion is somewhere in the sensible middle.
On the activist left (and sometimes the business-class right), immigration is often discussed as if present and potential immigrants are the only stakeholders in the debate whose opinions matter. Concerns about the impact of the size or skills composition of immigration are dismissed as secondary, inadmissible, or delusional. The illegal-immigration issue is about accommodating our existing population of unauthorized immigrants. Future immigration is about being welcoming and optimistic. Anyone who thinks differently is ignorant and/or sinister.
On the populist right, there is a vocal (though I suspect not especially numerous) contingent that wants to deal with illegal immigration simply through deportation and that thinks of immigrants as a bunch of cheats. Anyone who thinks differently is naïve and/or of questionable loyalty to the country.
Both of these views are wrong. Non-immigrant Americans have just as much a stake in the American immigration system as anybody else. Given the family instability and low labor-force participation of America’s low-skill workforce, the size and skills composition of future immigration flows is an important issue. On the other hand, the sheer size of America’s immigrant population means that there is no American interest that does not take into account the concerns of foreign-born American. Indeed, the size of our unauthorized immigrant population is such that the interest of people living in mixed-immigration-status families is, in itself, a component of the American interest.
I think that most people can balance both sets of thoughts in their heads. I suspect that the average American (of either party) is more moderate and sensible on immigration than the bipartisan Washington elite.
Polls showed that a large segment of Trump supporters favored some kind of legalization of our legacy population of unauthorized immigrants. It doesn’t follow that these Trump voters favored the up-front legalization that is favored by figures such as Obama and Paul Ryan.
The last major attempt at immigration reform increased future immigration even though somewhere between 85 and 79 percent of Americans oppose such an increase. The last attempt at immigration reform primarily increased low-skill immigration, even though most Democrats, Republicans, and independents favor shifting future immigration flows in the direction of skills and English proficiency.
How does a figure as grotesque as Trump seem like a reasonable (if desperate) choice to tens of millions of Americans? That’s how.