While being against immigration was a key component of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and being for immigration was a key component of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign, the pandemic has taken Americans’ minds off the immigration debate as a top priority, according to Frank Newport of Gallup.
Newport, a senior scientist at Gallup, devoted a recent blog to explaining how events of the past year have diverted the public’s attention from immigration to other pressing concerns. Those include coronavirus, of course, but also the racial justice reckoning that swept the country last summer and fall.
Newport’s summary: “The data make it clear that the issue of immigration is no longer nearly as top of mind for Americans as it has been at other times in recent history.”
To illustrate, Gallup reported in July 2019 that 27% of Americans mentioned immigration as the nation’s most important problem. That was a record high for Americans prioritizing this issue and only the fourth time in Gallup’s history that immigration topped the list.
Fast forward 18 months, and now “almost no Americans think first of immigration” as the nation’s most pressing problem, Newport said. When asked to list their top priorities for the nation in January 2021, “poor leadership” of the government topped the list, followed by coronavirus, a need to “unify the country” and then dealing with racism. Only 1% of respondents listed immigration as a top concern.
“This is a continuation of what we have seen now for a number of months; only 1% or 2% of Americans have mentioned immigration as the top problem since last April,” Newport explained. “I don’t think this means immigration has ceased to be a concern for the average American, but rather that it is an issue whose salience waxes and wanes depending on how much it is in the news and on how much other issues dominate the news landscape.”
Similarly, Pew Research recently asked Americans to rank a set of 19 issues in order of perceived priority, and immigration policy came in 14th. While Pew found 39% of Americans believe addressing immigration policy should be a top priority this year for the president and Congress, that pales in comparison to the 80% who ranked the economy as an urgent need and the 78% who ranked coronavirus as an urgent need.
Of note in the Pew study, however, is that Republicans and Democrats rank immigration as a priority at the same level — both at 39%. That stands in contrast to many other issues where there are sharp divides on priorities. This does not mean that Republicans and Democrats agree on solutions regarding immigration, just that they in equal numbers believe immigration policy should be addressed.
“So far, most of what Biden has done seems to fit well with majority public opinion.”
And none of this means that Americans have lost interest in addressing immigration in the long-term, Newport said, which is why the Biden administration is confidently addressing a number of immigration priorities.
“So far, most of what Biden has done seems to fit well with majority public opinion, highlighting the evident fact that much of what Trump did in relationship to immigration — while appealing to parts of his political base — was out of sync with the attitudes of the average American,” Newport said.
Border wall. Biden immediately ordered a pause in construction on Trump’s signature project, building a physical wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. While this was from the start a highly controversial project, it appealed strongly to Trump’s voter base and infuriated his opponents. Gallup and other pollsters have documented, however, consistent majority opposition to the wall.
Muslim travel ban. Biden also reserved Trump’s hotly contested ban on travelers from several majority-Muslim countries. Biden’s action appears to line up with majority public opinion again, Newport said. “There hasn’t been a lot of public opinion surveying about the ban in recent years, but attitudes, while mixed, tilted negative when the ban was first announced by Trump.”
“The majority of Americans … generally support a pathway to citizenship for those living here without legal documentation.”
DACA. Biden also took immediate action to protect the so-called “Dreamers,” who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents but now seek a path to citizenship on their own. “These actions, too, fit with the views of the average American,” Newport said. “One of the consistent findings from Gallup and other polling organizations over the years has been support for allowing children brought into the United States illegally to become legal residents and citizens. The majority of Americans also more generally support a pathway to citizenship for those living here without legal documentation.”
Legal immigration. While the Trump administration sought to curtail almost all immigration into the U.S., the Biden administration has pledged to reopen pathways for legal immigrants and asylum seekers. That, too, will be popular with a majority of Americans, Newport said. “The average American is positive about the general idea of legal immigration into this country. Last summer, Gallup noted that for the first time since we began asking about immigration levels in 1965, more Americans said that immigration should be increased rather than decreased, while a very slight plurality said it should remain the same. In the same poll, 77% said that immigration is a good thing for the country today — by one percentage point, the highest in this trend.”
Newport’s conclusion: “Clearly, if the views of the average American held sway, the president and Congress would figure out how to develop the type of comprehensive immigration plan that has for so long been a topic of legislative discussion, dealing simultaneously with all of the disparate pieces of the immigration puzzle.”