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In Trump Era, Increasing Polarization on Immigration, but Common Ground Remains for Path to Citizenship, Opposing Family Separation
03.12.2020

WASHINGTON—As the Trump administration continues to drastically reshape immigration policy in the United States, new analysis from a PRRI survey of 2,527 Americans finds deepening divides on immigration policies and perceptions of immigrants along lines of party, religion, and age. Notably, there remains bipartisan, cross-religious support for a path to citizenship and opposition to the practice of separating children from parents who are entering the country illegally when they are detained at the border.

Over the last decade, differences on immigration have increasingly become defining features of the two political parties. In 2010, the country was evenly divided over whether immigrants strengthened the country because of their hard work and talents or were a burden to the country because they take jobs, housing, and health care (45% and 43% respectively). At that time, a majority (55%) of Democrats, compared to 35% of Republicans, agreed that immigrants strengthen our country. Today, six in ten Americans (60%) say immigrants strengthen the country. Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans to express this view (79% vs. 31%).

“The widening chasm between Democrats and Republicans on immigration-related attitudes and policies is the new face of the culture wars,” notes PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones. “And these rifts also run through the religious landscape, demarcating white Christian sub-groups, who are far more fearful of immigrants and supportive of restrictive immigration policies, from other religious groups.”

Narrow Common Ground on Path to Citizenship, Family Separations

Despite increasing polarization on these issues, there is bipartisan, cross-religious agreement on two major issues.

When asked about how the U.S. should deal with immigrants currently living in the country illegally, two-thirds (67%) of Americans say they should be allowed a way to become citizens, provided they meet certain requirements; 13% say they should be eligible for permanent residency status but not citizenship; and 20% say they should be identified and deported. Remarkably, attitudes have been stable on this question since 2013. Majorities of Democrats (80%) and Republicans (51%) today say there should be a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And there is majority support for this policy across all religious groups, including among white evangelical Protestants (55%).

Similarly, a policy of separating children from parents who are attempting to enter the U.S. illegally and are detained at the border receives little support among Americans (23% favor, 75% oppose). Majorities of Republicans (54%), independents (75%), and Democrats (91%) oppose this policy. And this policy is opposed by majorities of all major religious groups, including 57% of white evangelical Protestants.

Trump Approval, Perceptions of Immigrants as Cultural Threat Driving Support for Restrictive Immigration Policies

In order to understand the independent drivers of support for restrictive immigration policies, PRRI created a composite index comprised of four highly correlated questions: 1) limiting the number of legal immigrants coming to the U.S.; 2) temporarily preventing people from some majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S.; 3) building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border; and 4) passing a law to prevent refugees from entering the U.S. Measured by this composite index, Americans are more likely to support than oppose such restrictive immigration policies (56% vs. 45%).

Nearly nine in ten (89%) Republicans support restrictive immigration policies, compared to 55% of independents and only 32% of Democrats—an almost 60-point partisan gap; nearly seven in ten (68%) Democrats oppose restrictive immigration policies.

Among religious groups, white Christian groups stand out as the most supportive of restrictive immigration policies. Strong majorities of white evangelical Protestants (85%), white mainline Protestants (66%), and white Catholics (68%) favor these policies; by contrast, fewer nonwhite religious groups, including 53% of Hispanic Protestants, 45% of black Protestants, and 39% of Hispanic Catholics support restrictive immigration policies. Notably, only 34% of religiously unaffiliated Americans support restrictive immigration policies; two-thirds (67%) oppose them.

In battleground states, two notable findings also stand out. White Christians in battleground states are 40 percentage points more likely than religiously unaffiliated residents to favor restrictive immigration policies (73% vs. 33%). And whites without a college degree are more than 20 percentage points more likely than those with a college degree to favor restrictive immigration policies (71% vs. 48%).

Even after accounting for party identification, race, religion, and other demographic traits in a statistical model, two factors stand out as the strongest independent predictors of support for restrictive immigration policies:

  • Americans who approve of the job Trump is doing as president are 12 times more likely than those who do not approve of the president to support restrictive immigration policies.
  • Additionally, Americans who believe that “immigrants are invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background” are 10 times more likely than those who disagree with this statement to support restrictive immigration policies.

 Other Notable Findings

  • Salience: Nearly half of Americans (49%) rate immigration as a critical issue. Generally speaking, Americans who hold more negative views of immigrants are more likely to say immigration is a critical issue.
  • DACA: A majority (63%) of Americans favor allowing undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as Dreamers, to gain legal resident status if they meet certain requirements; support has remained stable since 2018.
  • Refugee Resettlement: Nearly two thirds (64%) of Americans oppose passing a law to prevent refugees from entering the United States, compared to just over one-third (35%) who support it.
  • Trump’s Wall: A majority (56%) of Americans oppose building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, down from 63% opposition in 2017; support for this policy has increased from 36% in 2017 to 42% today.
  • Travel Bans for Muslim-Majority Countries: A majority of Americans (53%) oppose temporarily preventing people from some majority Muslim countries from entering the U.S., compared to four in ten (45%) who support this policy.
  • Sanctuary Cities: Fewer than half (46%) of Americans favor allowing cities to limit their cooperation with the federal government’s efforts to enforce immigration laws; a majority (51%) oppose these actions by cities.