In 2023, an important anniversary in immigration policy occurred: It has now been 10 years since the U.S. Senate passed S.744. Though S.744 never passed the House, this bill was notable for being an attempted overhaul of immigration policy written by a bipartisan group of four Democratic and four Republican senators, known as the “Gang of Eight.” However, in the years since S.744, the country has seen an increase in immigration enforcement, a rise of anti-immigrant rhetoric, the implementation of anti-immigrant policies, and a lack of progress on immigration reform. In this context, survey data can help us understand how public dialogue, political rhetoric, and attitudes toward immigration and immigrants in the United States have changed over the past decade.
From Obama to Trump
The failure to pass bipartisan immigration reform in 2013 was followed in 2014 by a surge in the number of unaccompanied minors arriving in the country — both of which became major media moments during the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Anti-immigrant politicians and organizations worked to villainize unaccompanied minors, framing them as criminals and invaders. Despite this vilification, PRRI’s July 2014 survey showed that vast majorities of Americans expressed support for more humane treatment of unaccompanied minors.
During the rest of the 2010s, the media spectacle around migration was dominated by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and subsequent presidency. In addition to his infamous characterization of Mexican migrants as criminals and rapists, his rallying cry of “build the wall” (and his attempts to do so) became an important tool for portraying migrants and refugees as threats.
Another important event during these years was the implementation of Trump’s family separation policy in 2017 and 2018, during which more than 5,000 children were separated from their families. The Trump administration framed this as a zero-tolerance policy aimed at deterring migrants from entering the United States. Trump further capitalized on this framing during the arrival of the Central American caravans in 2018, when he portrayed those migrants as part of a larger invasion in the run-up to that year’s midterms. However, PRRI’s 2018–2020 surveys show that vast majorities of Americans opposed having an immigration policy that separates children from their parents and charges parents as criminals when they enter the country without permission.
“Remain in Mexico,” COVID-19, and Title 42
On March 21, 2020, the U.S.-Mexico border was shut down for all nonessential travel, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) invoked Title 42, a clause of the 1994 Public Health Services Law that allows the government to increase immigration restrictions in the case of a public-health crisis. The move was ostensibly aimed at limiting the further spread of the coronavirus in the United States. In practice, it gave border patrol agents the power to immediately expel migrants and asylum seekers to their countries of origin or to the last country they were in, usually Mexico.
The provision stayed in effect well into the Biden presidency — until May 11, 2023. PBS News reported that between March 2020 and January 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) used Title 42 to expel about 2 million people from the country. In practical terms, the implementation of Title 42 meant that the right of migrants to apply for asylum was denied by arguing that “taking migrants into custody in federal facilities would create more of a public health risk.”
Overall, implementing Title 42 worsened a long-standing chaotic situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. For instance, in 2016, the arrival of thousands of Haitian migrants led CBP to launch a metering system, which set a limit on the number of people who could apply for asylum on a given day at ports of entry to the United States. CBP required applicants to get a number from Mexican officials (in some locations, numbers were distributed by having people write down their names on a notebook) in order to secure a place in line to seek asylum. In late 2018, at the San Ysidro port of entry, thousands of Central American asylum seekers joined this metering system. The average wait time just to submit an application was six to nine months.
Things got worse on January 25, 2019, when the American and Mexican governments signed the Migrant Protection Protocols — better known as the Remain in Mexico policy. Under this policy, CBP officials sent asylum seekers at the southern border back to Mexico to wait for a U.S. migration court to process their cases.
Thus, when the pandemic hit the United States, in March 2020, and Title 42 went into effect, tens of thousands of people were already stranded at the border. One report estimated that about 32,000 people were in this limbo when the pandemic hit.
Despite the pandemic and the heated politics surrounding immigration policy, a majority of Americans (53%) oppose building a wall along the border with Mexico, and 45% favor it, according to PRRI’s 2021 American Values survey. These views have shifted little since 2016, when the question was first asked (58% opposed and 41% were in favor). Moreover, more than eight in ten Republicans (84%) support a border wall, while a similar number of Democrats (80%) oppose it, according to the 2021 survey. In 2016, a PRRI/Brookings immigration survey showed that opinions on the border wall were slightly less polarized, with about two-thirds of Republicans (66%) in favor and 75% of Democrats in opposition. Independents roughly mirror Americans in general on this issue (56% opposed and 43% supported in 2021) and haven’t shifted notably since 2016 (when 59% opposed and 40% supported).
While Title 42 has now ended, the Biden administration has begun the implementation of Title 8, which outlines processes for deportation and carries strict penalties, including five- and 10-year bans on reentry for those deported.
In sum, the cumulative effect of these policies has created a bottleneck at the border. Unlike decades ago, when migrant people sought to reach the United States by crossing the border, today thousands of people have had their lives put on hold and are experiencing a kind of captivity as they are prevented from exercising their right to apply for asylum and refuge.