People gather at a U.S.-Mexico border fence to talk to relatives in Playas de Tijuana, Mexico. (Guillermo Arias/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
Opinion writer

In a timely poll, Pew Research finds:

The public is divided over many aspects of U.S. immigration policy. However, when asked about the priorities for policy toward illegal immigration, more Americans say better border security and a path to citizenship should be given equal priority than favor either approach individually.

The new national survey, conducted August 9-16 among 2,010 adults, also finds that a large majority (76%) says that undocumented immigrants are as hard-working and honest as U.S. citizens, while 67% say they are no more likely than citizens to commit serious crimes. The survey also finds continued public opposition to building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border: 61% oppose this proposal, which is little changed from earlier this year.

To the dismay of the immigration deportation cheerleaders, a strong plurality of Americans thinks we should pursue both legalization and border security, precisely as the Gang of Eight bill attempted to do. The pro-deportation crowd is not even in sync with conservatives:

Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 41% say better border security and stronger law enforcement should be the focus in dealing with illegal immigration; about as many (45%), however, say that both stronger law enforcement and a path to citizenship should be given equal priority.

The hard-line position that we can ramp up security and then expel anyone left behind is a minority position even within the GOP.

Even worse for the anti-immigrant crowd, the polls shows us:

Among the public overall, 71% say undocumented immigrants living in the United States mostly fill jobs citizens do not want, while just 24% say they mostly take jobs citizens want. About three-quarters of Americans (76%) say undocumented immigrants are “as honest and hard-working” as U.S. citizens, while 67% say they are no more likely than U.S. citizens to commit serious crimes.

As with views of immigration policy priorities, partisans differ in views of undocumented immigrants. Yet majorities of both Democrats (79%) and Republicans (63%) say that those who are in the U.S. illegally mostly take jobs U.S. citizens don’t want. Majorities in both parties also say undocumented immigrants are as honest and hard-working as U.S. citizens (87% of Democrats, 65% of Republicans).

For all the hollering and hooting, the hard-liners on immigration reform have not won their argument. Perhaps in the wake of a Trump wipeout, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will find the House Republican caucus more amenable to reasoned immigration reform that both stems illegal immigration (which Trump grossly exaggerates) and provides a path to legalization.

On building the wall, “Most Americans today continue to oppose building a wall along the entire border with Mexico: 61% express opposition to the wall, while 36% are in favor. These attitudes have changed little over the past year.” Here, however, a high percentage of Republicans (69%) favor building it. Perhaps if they understood how expensive and unnecessary this is and the source of the main problem (visa overstays), they might be enlightened.

The right-wing echo chamber that insists there be no talk of legalization has run into a dead end. And here it is important that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who can rightly crow about spotting Trump as a fraud, would do well to pay attention to this data as he tries to rebuild his image in the party. Cruz started as a senator with what seemed like a reasonable position, one that has broad support. He favored increased legal immigration by expanding visas for highly skilled workers, and he offered a legalization amendment (which he later disclaimed as a poison pill). If Cruz repeats Trump’s error in reverting to his uber-tough anti-immigration reform stance in the campaign (including a detailed proposal that would have strictly restricted legal immigration), he’ll have learned the wrong lesson and will run into the same problems that Trump now faces.

As for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), his big failing was in losing nerve. After the brouhaha in the Senate, he let the immigration issue drop. In the campaign he hedged and finessed the issue rather than embracing it and defending legalization head on. By the end he talked almost exclusively about border security. If he had shown greater courage, he might have survived the primary and then impressed the general electorate. Unfortunately, he wound up looking weak and craven.

Trump, Cruz and the rest of the GOP would be smart to remember that Americans remain largely practical and fair. They — just as Trump said — recoil when you talk about throwing out grandmas who have been here for decades. They understand that immigrants in large numbers are part of the fabric of their communities. And their first-hand experience tells them that Trump’s portrayal of them as murderers and rapists is hugely distorted and statistically defective.

The great lesson of the 2016 campaign — other than not nominating a know-nothing narcissist — is that the so-called angry populists are a tiny segment of the electorate. Their economic concerns may have broader relevance, but their views on immigration are wildly out of step with the ethos of the country. Unless Republicans stop chasing these voters (at the expense of an increasingly diverse electorate) and looking for non-existent “undercover” votes, they will continue to lose, and lose big.