Donald Trump has made immigration restriction his signature issue. So far, the net effect of his immigration rhetoric has been to make the restrictionist cause markedly less popular. I warned that this would happen on several occasions in 2015 and 2016, but even I’m struck by the extent to which public opinion has shifted, as evidenced by a recent report from the Pew Research Center: The number of Americans who want immigration levels increased now surpasses the number who want to see them decreased.
It is hardly surprising that Democrats would turn against a very visible stance taken by a polarizing Republican president. Partisanship is a powerful force, and as Trump deemphasizes other conservative causes, such as entitlement reform and spending restraint, and as he devotes more time and attention to a highly controversial border-enforcement strategy, immigration has emerged as one of the chief dividing lines between the parties. More surprising, though, is the fact that Republicans have also moved in a more expansionist direction, notwithstanding the fact that the president’s approval rating among self-identified Republicans is very high. Pew finds that since 2015, support for decreasing legal immigration has fallen among Republicans to 33 percent while support for increasing it has risen to 22 percent; support for keeping legal immigration at current levels, meanwhile, stands at 39 percent.
Should restrictionists be alarmed? First, it is worth noting that the framing of the question matters, and that surveys that emphasize the number of new green cards issued annually typically yield more restrictionist results. However, when you then tell people that permanent immigration flows to the U.S. are not especially large by the standards of other market democracies, you might get a different answer yet again. Further complicating matters is that while many Americans are open to reducing immigration levels in the abstract, they are often reluctant to back cuts in any specific immigration category. That is, when you ask people if they’d be open to reducing family-based admissions (which now represent the lion’s share of new green cards), skills-based admissions, or refugee admissions, they’d usually balk.
So I wasn’t too surprised to see that when a new Washington Post-Schar School poll asked voters if they favored limiting the ability of U.S. citizens to sponsor their parents and siblings for green cards, 61 percent were opposed. Back in February, I made the case for a more balanced approach to family admissions, in which having a U.S. citizen as a sibling could be considered a point in your favor, and I suspect such an approach would be popular. But as long as the debate is framed in binary terms, those of us who favor curbing family admissions, and rebalancing immigration inflows towards those with better prospects for labor market success, are at a disadvantage. There is some good news for restrictionists in the new poll. For one, 78 percent of voters support requiring employers to verify that new hires are authorized to work in the U.S., and the proportion is higher (83 percent) among those residing in so-called battleground districts. Support for boosting funding for border enforcement is also quite high. Overall, though, there doesn’t seem to be much support for substantial immigration reductions.
One could argue that it is the intensity of public opinion that matters most for political outcomes, and many believe that restrictionist voters are more inclined to vote on immigration than expansionists, or those who fall somewhere in between. There is a reason Republican candidates have been moving towards more consistently restrictionist platforms: They are keenly aware that their political fate will depend in no small part on restrictionist primary voters. And for many of these voters, Trump’s rhetoric has been galvanizing.
Yet if conservatives are going to achieve lasting policy victories, they need to offer an agenda that can draw in those we might call immigration centrists, who are concerned about the fate of unauthorized immigrants who’ve been in the country for a decade or more yet who are open to more stringent workplace enforcement and, I suspect, skills-based immigration reform. For the foreseeable future, this will mean emphasizing rebalancing over reductions. Rebalancing is not a cause that restrictionist activists are eager to embrace, not least because they reject the notion that current immigration levels should be treated as sacrosanct. But the fact remains that support for rebalancing is far more widespread than support for reductions, and that appears to be even more true under Trump than his predecessors.