Polling Update: Heated Political Rhetoric on Immigration has not Changed Decade-Long Public Opinion

August 31, 2016

Introduction

Over the past decade and more, there has been solid public support for the idea of allowing immigrants living illegally in the U.S. to remain in this country and eventually gain citizenship under certain conditions. In an article about its December 2015 national survey, the Public Religion Research Institute stated that, “[s]upport for a path to citizenship for immigrants currently living in the country illegally has been incredibly stable since early 2013.” Gallup, in its June/July 2015 survey of American adults showing majority support for a path to citizenship, noted that, “U.S. adults’ views have been largely stable over the past decade.” The National Immigration Forum has documented some of this public support over the years, and past summaries posted on these dates can be found here: July 15, 2015, January 21, 2015, October 17, 2014 and July 10, 2014.

Public support has been and continues to be steady, even as rhetoric about illegal immigration has become more vitriolic. In this presidential election cycle, there has been a steady stream of polling by mainstream media and research organizations that continues to show public support for allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. In the surveys discussed below, public support for allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. ranges from 60 percent to 78 percent.

Despite harsh immigration rhetoric by some presidential candidates, exit polls of Republican primary voters have shown that, except in two states, a majority of Republican primary voters favored allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S.

More generally, these surveys and analyses of the American electorate suggest that support for the idea of allowing undocumented immigrants to continue to live in the U.S. will remain steady or grow. The part of the electorate that is increasing in numbers — Latinos, Asians, African Americans and young voters of the Millennial and Gen-X generations — are very supportive of allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. It is the part of the electorate that is shrinking — predominantly white and elderly — that voices most of the opposition to the idea of allowing undocumented immigrants to stay.

Public support for immigration reform with a path to citizenship has been steady.

Since June of 2015, there have been over a dozen national polls that included questions regarding attitudes towards immigrants and immigration policy. Many polls included questions to gauge support for allowing undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S. to remain here under certain conditions. Some of these surveys included very large samples, allowing for analysis at the state level. What follows is a summary of some of the recent polls in reverse chronological order.

Polling Update August 2016 Graph

Gallup (June 7 – July 1, 2016, of 3,270 U.S. adults, with an oversample of black and Hispanic adults). This poll asked respondents whether they favored or opposed “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.” The overwhelming majority — 84 percent — favored the proposal. This includes 91 percent of Democrats, 85 percent of Independents, and 76 percent of Republicans. This poll indicates some increase in support for a path to citizenship compared to a similar Gallup poll from one year ago — despite the harsh rhetoric about immigration that has been a hallmark of this presidential election cycle. In this poll, respondents were also asked their opinion on “deporting all immigrants who were living in the U.S. illegally.” Republicans were split on this, with 50 percent favoring the proposal — a much smaller percentage than those who favored allowing undocumented immigrants to stay (76 percent). In all, only 32 percent of respondents favored deportation.

Global Strategy Group & Basswood Research (July 5 – 10, 2016, of 600 likely November voters in Colorado, Florida and Nevada). This poll of likely voters in three presidential battleground states found that more than three-quarters (77 percent) of likely voters support immigration reform that includes increased border security and an earned path to citizenship for immigrants living here illegally. This includes a majority of Democrats (83 percent), Independents (78 percent) and Republicans (69 percent).

Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings Institution (April 4 to May 2, 2016, of 2,607 U.S. adults in all 50 states and the District of Columbia). This very large survey asked Americans their feelings on a range of issues of the day, including cultural change, immigration, immigration policy, trade, taxation and others. Respondents were asked how the immigration system should deal with immigrants who are currently living in the U.S. illegally. Overall, 78 percent favored allowing these immigrants to remain in the U.S. — 61 percent believed these immigrants should be allowed to eventually become citizens, provided they meet certain requirements, and an additional 17 percent said these immigrants should be allowed to remain permanently, but not become citizens. A majority of both Republicans (71 percent) and Democrats (87 percent) favored allowing these immigrants to remain in the U.S.

Pew Research Center (March 17 – 27, 2016, of 2,254 U.S. adults). In this survey, respondents were asked which came closer to their view. Three in four respondents (75 percent) said that undocumented immigrants who are now living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay legally in the U.S., verses 23 percent who said they should not be allowed to stay legally. Support for allowing undocumented immigrants to stay cut across party lines, with 57 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Democrats supporting the idea. It was different for supporters of Trump, who narrowly opposed (47 percent – 52 percent) allowing undocumented immigrants to stay, and 42 percent of Trump supporters favor an effort to deport all undocumented immigrants. While most Americans (59 percent) are opposed to building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, supporters of Trump are strongly in favor (84 percent).

Washington Post-ABC News (March 3 – 6, 2016, of 1,000 U.S. adults). Respondents were asked if they would support or oppose an effort by the government to deport all “11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.” Just under two-thirds (61 percent) said they would oppose such an effort.

Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), American Values Atlas (April 29, 2015 – January 7, 2016, of 42,586 U.S. adults). In this survey of an unusually large number of people, PRRI found that the overall attitude of Americans towards immigrants is positive. On the issue of immigration reform, 62 percent of Americans say they think that, “in dealing with immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, the immigration system should allow them to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements.” An additional 15 percent believe these immigrants should be allowed to become permanent legal residents, but not citizens. Only 19 percent say these immigrants should be identified and deported. Support for a path to citizenship extends, with differences in degree, across age, race and ethnic groups, as well as religious affiliations. While there are major differences between Democrats and Republicans, majorities of both parties support a path to citizenship (72 percent and 52 percent, respectively). Among Republicans, support for a path to citizenship is highest among the young — 63 percent of young Republicans age 18 to 29 favor a path to citizenship verses 47 percent of seniors (age 65 and older). This survey was large enough to gauge public opinion in each state. With the one exception of South Dakota, a majority of respondents favored a path to citizenship in every state. Support ranged from 68 percent support for a path to citizenship in Washington to 46 percent in South Dakota

Public Religion Research Institute (December 2 – 6, 2015, of 1,003 U.S. adults). In this survey, 63 percent of respondents told interviewers that the statement that came closest to their view “about how the immigration system should deal with immigrants who are currently living in the U.S. illegally” was to “allow them a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements.” An additional 15 percent said they felt that these immigrants should be allowed to become permanent legal residents, but not citizens. Only 18 percent favored deportation.

Bloomberg Politics (November 16 – 17, 2015, of 628 U.S. adults). This survey attempted to gauge public opinion regarding the administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, in place since 2012. After the statement, “President Obama halted the deportation of some immigrants living in the country illegally if they came here before age 16, have been in the country for five years, have no criminal record, are in school or have a high school diploma or have been honorably discharged from the military,” respondents were asked if this program should be continued or not. Nearly two-thirds of respondents (63 percent) said the program should continue, including 50 percent of Republicans. Another question asked respondents if they thought “rounding up 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally and sending them to their home country” was the right way or the wrong way to address the situation. Only 27 percent said deportation was the right way. Majorities of Democrats (73 percent) and Republicans (54 percent) said that deportation was the wrong way to address the situation.

CBS News-New York Times (October 21 – 25, 2015, of 1,289 adults nationwide, including 1,136 registered voters). This poll asked respondents what they thought should be done about “illegal immigrants who are living in the U.S.” More than two-thirds of all respondents (69 percent) favored allowing undocumented immigrants to remain, including 58 percent who favored allowing them to apply for citizenship and 11 percent who said they should be allowed to stay legally, but not gain citizenship. Democrats (84 percent), Independents (66 percent) and Republicans (59 percent) favored allowing undocumented immigrants to stay, with a majority of Democrats (75 percent) and Independents (55 percent) favoring a path to citizenship.

Pew Research Center (September 22 – 27, 2015, of 1,502 U.S. adults). This survey asked respondents if they thought there should be a way for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. “to stay in the country legally, if certain requirements are met.” In all, 74 percent said that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay (47 percent thought they should be allowed to become citizens, and an additional 24 percent thought they should be allowed to apply for permanent residency, but not citizenship). Only 24 percent said undocumented immigrants should not be allowed to stay. Majorities of Democrats (80 percent), Independents (74 percent) and Republicans (66 percent) said that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay. The most supportive groups were Latinos (87 percent), Liberal Democrats (85 percent), African Americans (83 percent) and young adults (age 18 – 29, 82 percent).

Wall Street Journal-NBC News (July 26 – 30, 2015, of 1,000 adults nationwide). In this survey, 64 percent of respondents favored allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. (with 47 percent favoring a path to citizenship and 17 percent favoring legal status but not citizenship). A minority (32 percent) thought undocumented immigrants should be deported.

Quinnipiac University (July 23 – July 28, 2015, of 1,644 registered voters nationwide). This survey asked respondents which position came closest to their views about “illegal immigrants who are currently living in the United States.” More than half (55 percent) said that they “should be allowed to stay in the United States and to eventually apply for U.S. citizenship.” An additional 9 percent said they should “be allowed to remain in the United States, but not be allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship.” Less than a third (32 percent) said they “should be required to leave the U.S.” Democrats (83 percent) and Independents (64 percent) favored allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S., while a plurality of Republicans (49 percent) would have undocumented immigrants leave the U.S.

CNN/ORC International (July 22 – 25, 2015, of 1,017 adults, including 898 registered voters nationwide). Respondents in this poll were asked what the main focus of the U.S. government should be in dealing with “the issue of illegal immigration.” A majority, 56 percent, said that the main focus should be to develop “a plan that would allow illegal immigrants who have jobs to become legal U.S. residents.” A minority (42 percent) said the main focus should be to develop “a plan for stopping the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S. and for deporting those already here.” According to this survey, Republicans favored deportation, while Independents and Democrats favored allowing undocumented immigrants to stay. Respondents aged 18 to 34 favored allowing undocumented immigrants to stay by a margin of 70 percent to 28 percent — more than any other group except self-described liberals (75 percent).

Washington Post-ABC News (July 16 – 19, 2015, of 1002 adults nationwide). This survey included a question asking respondents whether they thought “undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States should or should not be allowed to live and work here legally, if they pay a fine and meet other requirements.” Three in five (60 percent) said that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay, verses 37 percent who thought they should not be allowed to stay. A slim majority of Republicans (51 percent), said that undocumented immigrants should not be allowed to stay, while a substantial majority of Democrats (74 percent) and Independents (58 percent) said that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay. Of those who favored allowing undocumented immigrants to stay, 67 percent favored a path to citizenship, while 29 percent said they should be allowed to apply for permanent residency, but not citizenship.

Gallup (June 15 – July 10, 2015, of 2,296 adults nationwide, with an oversample of black and Hispanic adults). This survey found that almost two in three U.S. adults (65 percent) favored allowing “illegal immigrants to remain in the United States and become U.S. citizens … if they meet certain requirements over a period of time.” Only 19 percent of respondents favored the option, “deport all illegal immigrants back to their home country.” While more Republicans than Democrats or Independents favor the deportation option, only 31 percent did so. The level of support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, Gallup noted, has not changed dramatically since 2006, though Democrats have become somewhat more supportive of the idea and Republicans somewhat less so.

The growing electorate’s views on immigration.

Virtually all of the surveys discussed here show public support for allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. While there are differences in support among groups of voters, one group, the growing electorate — Latinos, African Americans and other minorities and young voters — is much more positive about immigrants and immigration, and much less receptive to calls for building a wall on the border, or mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. Support for an enforcement only approach is greatest in the shrinking electorate — voters age 50 and over, who also tend to be white.

The Pew Research Center has charted the evolution of public attitudes about immigrants and immigration reform. Overall, public attitudes about immigrants have become more positive in the past 20 years, with 59 percent of the public saying that immigrants strengthen the country verses 31 percent who said so in 1994. The change in public attitudes has come from Democrats who have become more positive (49 percent said immigrants strengthen the country in 1994 versus 78 percent now) and from younger voters. Among Millennials, 76 percent view immigrants as strengthening the country, and 60 percent of Gen Xers think the same. Older voters are less supportive — 48 percent of Baby Boomers and 41 percent of persons born before 1945 hold the positive view of immigration. Support for allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. also show differences between parties and between generations, with younger voters much more supportive. (82 percent of Millennials support allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. legally, according to Pew.)

The generational divide can be seen as well within the Republican Party. The Public Religion Research Institute’s March 2016 report on immigration noted that young Republicans (age 18 to 29) strongly supported giving immigrants currently living in the country illegally a path to citizenship (63 percent), while less than half (47 percent) of Republicans age 65 and older supported that position. As Priscilla Alvarez in the Atlantic recently noted, “the hard-liner stance on immigration adopted by candidates in pursuit of the White House may not resonate with the next generation of the GOP, which will soon make up a bigger fraction of the Republican electorate.”

A survey of young adults, age 18 to 35 conducted by Fusion and released in October 2015 found that 81 percent of respondents said they favored allowing undocumented immigrants who have children who are U.S. citizens to remain in the U.S. “if they pay a fine and meet other requirements.” Among 18- to 21-year olds, support for that proposition was 91 percent. The proposal to allow undocumented immigrants with U.S. citizen children is part of the administration’s executive actions on immigration, on hold pending a final outcome in the courts.

Some surveys included questions to gauge receptivity to the harsh enforcement proposals espoused by Donald Trump. For example, a Washington Post-ABC News survey conducted in September 2015 asked respondents whether they “support or oppose Trump’s proposals on immigration.” Latinos opposed these proposals (75 percent) and so did a majority of respondents overall (57 percent). Democrats (79 percent) and Independents (53 percent) opposed these proposals. Women were opposed (61 percent) more so than men (52 percent), and African Americans were even more strongly opposed than Latinos (81 percent). Two-thirds of younger voters (aged 18 to 39) were opposed, while Trump’s ideas found majority support only in the 65 and over age group.

Younger people have more tolerant attitudes towards immigrants than do older adults in part because many of them are immigrants or the children of immigrants. But also, as the University of Southern California’s Manuel Pastor recently noted, “younger people are much more likely than older generations to have experienced some diversity in their schools and their own life.” Familiar with diversity, young people are less threatened by it.

Conclusion

Support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants will continue. For more than a decade, Americans have supported a path to citizenship or legal residence for undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S. Despite this remarkably consistent support, policy makers in Washington have failed to enact immigration reform to resolve the status of undocumented immigrants. As a result, the issue remains on the table, and continues to be fodder for politics.

In the past year, the immigration debate has heated up as presidential candidates compete for votes in a narrow slice of the overall electorate. Despite all the vitriol, public support for allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. has not changed. As more voters with positive views of immigrants continue to enter the electorate, we can expect public support for a path to citizenship to remain steady or increase.

  • Thank you to Maurice Belanger for his assistance with this Polling Update.