When the Chicago Council Surveys first began asking questions about immigration in 1994, seven in ten Americans (72%) said controlling and reducing illegal immigration was a very important goal; the same percentage said that large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the US represented a critical threat. Since then, both measures of concern have fallen dramatically. And while media coverage of this summer’s child migrant crisis produced a spike in concern over immigration, that concern fell off as news coverage faded: the Chicago Council’s May and October polls showed no significant differences on threat perception or enforcement prioritization.
Widening Partisan Divisions on Immigration
Behind this long-term decline is a large—and growing—partisan divide on immigration. Democrats are dramatically less concerned about immigration than they were in the late 1990s. Then, six in ten Democrats said large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the US represented a critical threat. That number has been cut in half. In October, only three in ten said the same. Independents show a similar pattern: they’re somewhat less concerned about immigration than they used to be, falling from 51 percent in the late 1990s to 41 percent now. By contrast, Republicans’ level of concern has held steady, with slightly more than half saying it represents a critical threat.
Similarly, Democrats have become less likely to say that controlling and reducing illegal immigration is very important – from more than half to about one in three today. Notably, this summer’s events didn’t affect Democrats’ views on prioritization of enforcement. By contrast, Republicans are actually more likely to prioritize controlling and reducing illegal immigration now than they were in the late 1990s. And this summer had a stronger effect on Republicans. In May, six in ten said controlling and reducing illegal immigration was very important. In October, 74% said the same – an increase of thirteen percentage points.
The Policy and Politics of Immigration Reform
These trends in American public opinion help explain the strong support for comprehensive immigration reform that past Council surveys have found. The 2012 Chicago Council Survey found that 78 percent of Americans favored a version of immigration reform that combined a path to citizenship requiring payment of back taxes and learning English with increased) border security and penalties for employers who hire unauthorized immigrants. Similarly, the Council's August 2013 survey of 500 business leaders from the 12-state Midwest found that majorities of Republican (75%), Democratic (63%), and Independent (55%) business leaders supported comprehensive immigration reform that included a path to citizenship combined with stricter border control. Other polls have shown similar results, with support varying depending on how the question is worded.
Despite this broad support for immigration reform, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released yesterday found that roughly half of Americans (48%) say they oppose Obama taking executive action on immigration, while four in ten (38%) support it. Partisan views on executive action are polarized: 63 percent of Democrats favor executive action, while only 11 percent of Republicans say the same (Independents lie in the middle at 37% support).
What explains the gap between the two? These results on executive action reflect the politics of the decision, rather than the policy. The same NBC/WSJ poll found that a majority of Americans (57%) favor a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and three in four Americans (74%) favor a pathway when told it requires paying fines and back taxes, as well as passing a security background check—roughly the same as past Chicago Council Survey findings.
Executive action may prove to be a policy act in which the content is more popular than the overall decision. It remains to be seen which the voters care about more.