Is Donald Trump Winning on Immigration?

An aerial shot of protesters holding a banner reading #FamiliesBelongTogether.
Protesters that marched from Freedom Plaza to the U.S. Capitol demonstrate inside the Hart Senate Office Building against family detentions and to demand the end of criminalizing efforts of asylum seekers and immigrants June 28 in Washington. Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump taunted Democrats over their support of less restrictive immigration policies, suggesting their stances will lead them to losses in the midterms.

There have been a few polls released recently that shed actual light on the state of the immigration debate among the American public. The result with the most long-term significance for American politics came last week from Pew Research Center. For the first time on record, the number of Americans who believe legal immigration should be increased (32 percent) has surpassed the number who believe it should be decreased (24 percent). Those numbers are almost exactly reversed from the results of a CBS/NYT poll from 10 years ago—then 32 percent of Americans favored decreasing legal immigration while 23 percent favored increasing it. That growth is corroborated by Gallup, which has been tracking opinions about increasing or decreasing immigration overall since 1967. Their latest numbers, from June, found support for increasing immigration (28 percent) just under support for decreasing it (29 percent).

According to Pew, increasing immigration is already supported by a plurality of Democrats and Americans under the age of 30, and if current growth holds, support for increasing immigration among Americans overall may soon overtake the plurality of Americans who want to keep legal immigration at current levels (38 percent in Pew’s survey.)There’s reason to believe that growth has been helped along in part by backlash to the rise of Donald Trump, but America’s changing demographics—the growth of nonwhites as a share of the population—have played a greater role, as Gallup’s numbers show that support for increasing immigration began rising in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Pew found too that already-strong support for immigration reform has grown in recent years. Fifty-eight percent of Americans disagreed that a path to citizenship unfairly rewarded undocumented immigrants in 2015. Now 67 percent of Americans share that belief.

These trends and broad sympathy for the undocumented have given some hope for the political prospects of abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which has broadened its dragnet of deportable immigrants under Trump. Last week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a likely Democratic 2020 candidate, became the first sitting senator to endorse the idea, which was also a centerpiece of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset campaign against Rep. Joe Crowley last month.

The idea has become a rallying cry for the Democratic base, but recently released results of a Harvard-Harris poll of likely voters conducted in late June show that public support is low. Sixty-nine percent of voters, including majorities of Democrats and Clinton voters (both 59 percent) and half of Hispanic voters, currently oppose disbanding ICE. Voters under the age of 35, and self-identified liberal voters, both back disbanding the agency by a slim majority (53 percent). Seventy percent of voters moreover support our immigration laws becoming stricter, rather than looser—every subcategory of voters measured by Harvard-Harris but liberals and Clinton-supporters agrees—and 64 percent of voters, including a 52 percent majority of Hispanics, say border-crossers should be sent home rather than allowed to stay.

The Harvard-Harris poll found too that 73 percent of voters back “comprehensive immigration reform” with 63 percent specifically endorsing a deal that would grant undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship in exchange for moving to a more merit-based system of legal immigration, ending the diversity lottery, and increasing border security. Opposition to the Trump administration’s child-separation policy is also broad and strong—88 percent of likely voters say that authorities should keep undocumented immigrant families together and 61 percent blamed the Trump administration, rather than undocumented parents, for what has transpired at the border. A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday found that 60 percent of voters believed the child separation policy was a violation of human rights.

Americans have mixed feelings about the motivations driving immigration conversations in Washington. According to Quinnipiac, half of American voters believe President Trump’s interest in reducing immigration comes from sincere concern about the consequences of insecure borders rather than racist beliefs. At the same time, a 53 percent majority of voters say Trump is more interested in exploiting immigration as an issue for political gain than finding solutions. Sixty percent of voters, including a 58 percent majority of Hispanic voters, believe the same about the Democrats.

There are a few key takeaways from all this. The first is that arguments from pundits and policymakers about the political need to consider reducing legal immigration are completely removed from reality. There is no growing constituency of Americans that supports reducing legal immigration—Republicans and Republican-leaners are ten points less supportive of this than they were a decade ago according to Pew. The fact that Americans might support restrictive changes to the immigration system as part of a deal made for undocumented immigrants does not mean that agreeing to such a trade is actually politically necessary or negate the fact that the growth trend in immigration policy is among Americans who support boosting legal immigration. It is perverse that legal immigration restrictions are being considered because people believe that there is some rising tide of Americans that wants to clamp down on all immigration altogether.

The other takeaway is that when it comes to policy on undocumented immigration, abolishing ICE may be a hard sell. That doesn’t mean that Democrats cannot or should not try to boost support for the idea, or that eliminating ICE, an agency the country did just fine without until its creation in 2003, isn’t the right thing to do. It is. It surveils and terrorizes immigrants and their families, breaking up parents and their children in less immediately visible fashion than the Trump administration’s detention centers. People who simply want to build a life in this country without bothering anybody shouldn’t be treated this way.

And making that case loudly and boldly might make a dent in the numbers of voters, particularly Hispanic voters, who don’t believe the Democratic Party is sincerely troubled by the immigration situation. It might, at the very least, help mobilize those young voters who already do agree that ICE should be done away with. It’s likely too that partisanship and reaction to the Trump administration—the two main drivers of public opinion on immigration policy of the moment—would boost the numbers in support of ditching ICE if Democrats endorsed it en masse, triggering heated reaction from Trump and the right. Overall, the data on immigration and public opinion suggests that as heavily as the Democrats rhetoricize the issue now, there’s still room for improvement.