Election 2016: Trump’s Immigration Plan in the People’s Court


Co-authored by Morris Levy 

Donald Trump has outlined his immigration policy. He calls for reducing the number of legal immigrants, deporting millions of immigrants living in the United States illegally, building a permanent wall along the Mexican border, and abolishing automatic citizenship for children born to foreigners on U.S. soil. Of those deported, some— presumably the “good ones”—would be able to return. How do these proposals fare in the court of public opinion, and Republican opinion in particular?

Let’s start off with the reduction of legal immigrants, which Trump would accomplish by blocking new Green Cards until full employment of U.S. citizens is achieved. In a Gallup Poll conducted earlier this summer, 34% of the public said they wanted the level of immigration decreased, 40% said it should remain at its present level and 25% said it should be increased. The support for increasing immigration is an uptick from the 13% who favored that policy in 2000, and the trend undoubtedly is driven in part by the rise in the immigrant and Hispanic population. Unsurprisingly, Republicans are consistently more in favor than Democrats of decreasing immigration. Still, this abstract support for greater limits on immigration may not mean Republicans would back concrete policy changes needed to bring about the goal outlined in Trump’s plan.  While nearly half of Republicans generally favor decreasing immigration, our research suggests only about a quarter would support reducing the admission of those with family members living legally in the U.S., seeking refuge from persecution abroad, or bringing skills U.S. employers say are needed. Together, these categories make up approximately 95% of the Green Cards the U.S. government issues annually. 

As for Trump’s call  to deport illegal immigrants, most national polls consistently show a majority preferring to allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country and become citizens if they meet certain requirements over time, such as paying back taxes and learning English. The summer 2015 Gallup poll showed that 65% of a national sample and fully 50% of Republicans favored a path to legalization and citizenship. Undoubtedly, a substantial portion of the Republican electorate rigidly rejects any form of earned citizenship as an “amnesty” that “rewards lawbreakers,” a point of view our research  has tied to more general beliefs about the importance of the rule of law. But reservations about an amnesty are not tantamount to support for the aggressive deportation program Trump advocates. Only 19% of all Americans and 31% of Republicans favored deporting all illegal immigrants. Why do so many reject mass deportation? The vast majority (76%) simply believes that deporting all illegal immigrants is unrealistic. Others are likely swayed by humanitarian or religious considerations about breaking up families and disrupting the lives of people who are struggling to make ends meet in this country.

Concern about border security is paramount, and on this issue, unlike deportations, Trump is echoing concerns felt widely in the country, and especially among Republicans. 77% of Americans and 86% of Republicans felt that legislation allowing illegal immigrants to apply for legal status needed to include increased border security. A majority of Republicans (56% compared to 35% of Democrats) said that applications for legal status should begin only after the border was made more secure. A May 2015 Rasmussen Poll found that concern about border insecurity had increased, with 83% of Republicans saying that securing the border was more important than giving legal status to undocumented residents. Even Trump’s wall might be popular: 57% of the national sample favored continuing to build a fence along the Southern border despite President Obama’s announcement that he would not fund this project.  

Finally, what about Trump’s proposal to end birthright citizenship, a move that would require a constitutional amendment?Rasmussen found that most voters (54%) feel that a child born to an illegal immigrant mother in the United States should not automatically become a U.S. citizen, as is now the case, while thirty-eight percent (38%) favor the current policy of automatic citizenship for these children.  However, question wording modifies the responses. In 2011, Pew asked if respondents favored “a constitutional amendment” to see that a child born to someone in the country illegally would not automatically become a citizen. Once the idea of amending the constitution was mentioned, just 39% approved and 57% were opposed to going that far to end birthright citizenship.

So there is a hard core of Republicans who share Trump’s frustration about illegal immigration and government’s failure to control it. But most Republicans fall well short of supporting the get-tough measures his plan includes. And in the younger, more ethnically diverse electorate as a whole, Trump’s harsh proposals are rejected.

Immigration, both legal and illegal, does evoke anxieties, today as in other unsettled times throughout American history. Even so, most Americans believe that on balance immigration benefits the country. Tough talk on immigration can roil the nomination process for Republicans, and the vocal response of the minority who greet it with enthusiasm is easily misconstrued as the sentiments of the majority. But as some of the candidates recognize, it is unlikely to win the nomination, let alone elect a President.

Jack Citrin is the Director of IGS. Morris Levy was an IGS Graduate Fellow as a doctoral candidate at UC-Berkeley, and is now an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Southern California.