Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Fix | Analysis

President Trump is on shaky ground with his new immigration order

By Scott Clement

February 23, 2017 at 7:00 AM

The Trump administration's expanded enforcement against undocumented immigrants may not come as a surprise given the president's strident stance on the issue during the presidential campaign. But, the plan risks crossing a significant line in many Americans' minds: criminality.

That dynamic was illustrated in two Washington Post-ABC News polls over the past year. In January, 72 percent supported a proposal to deport about 2 million undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of a crime, with over 52 percent supporting it "strongly." The policy garnered support across party lines, including 90 percent of Republicans, 72 percent of independents and 58 percent of Democrats. (While the question asked about a proposal to deport two million undocumented immigrants similar to past Trump proposals, The Post's Fact Checker has noted the total number is likely less than half the size.)

But a Post-ABC poll during the presidential primaries found a very different result when asking about support for deporting all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.. Just 36 percent supported the idea, exactly half the level of support for deporting convicted criminals in the post-election poll.

The drop in support for deportation of all undocumented immigrants compared with jus those convicted of crimes was large across party lines. Only among Republicans did a majority support deporting all undocumented immigrants (57 percent), dropping to 33 percent of independents and 20 percent of Democrats. For each group, support for mass deportation was more than 30 points lower than when it was focused on those convicted of crimes.

Trump's new rules do not call for deporting all undocumented immigrants. Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly's memos outlined the enforcement protocol for Trump's expected executive order. Here's how The Post's David Nakamura described them:

"Kelly's new DHS policies considerably broaden the pool of undocumented immigrants prioritized for removal, including those who have been charged with crimes but not convicted, those who commit acts that constitute a 'chargeable criminal offense,' and those who an immigration officer concludes pose 'a risk to public safety or national security.'"

A Pew Research Center poll last August found two-thirds of the public said undocumented immigrants living in the country are no more likely than U.S. citizens to commit serious crimes (67 percent).  More than three-quarters said undocumented immigrants were just as honest and hard-working as citizens. About 7 in 10 said undocumented immigrants mostly fill jobs U.S. citizens do not want. At least half of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents agreed with these positive assessments.

While Americans express sympathy toward law-abiding undocumented immigrants, the 2016 election result suggests this does not guarantee Trump or Republicans will face a significant blowback from voters. Many Trump supporters disagreed with his proposals on immigration and building a wall along the U.S. border, but on the flipside, all nonetheless supported him over Hillary Clinton.

Still, pushing immigration action into undocumented immigrants who have committed no other crime raises the political stakes considerably for Trump.

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A snapshot of the state of U.S. illegal immigration, based on the latest U.S. Census data. (Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

Emily Guskin contributed to this report.


Scott Clement is the polling director at The Washington Post, specializing in public opinion about politics, election campaigns and public policy.

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