Immigration reform activists hold a sign in front of Freedom Tower in downtown Miami on Jan. 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

In one word, here’s why Donald Trump’s candidacy has gone from sideshow to serious problem for the Republican Party: immigration.

Coverage of the party’s 2016 nomination battle early last week was dominated by Trump’s call for mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. Then it shifted to his claim that the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment does not guarantee citizenship to babies born in the U.S. to parents who are here illegally, an argument that ignores precedent established by the Supreme Court in 1898.

[Trump thinks that being born in the U.S. shouldn’t make you a citizen. Changing that would be very hard.]

With positions like these, Trump is carving out a space on the far right wing of the immigration policy debate. Every recent G.O.P. presidential nominee—from Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney—has stayed far away from that spot. But several candidates in the crowded Republican field compete directly with Trump for conservative voters, and they spent the week going toe-to-toe with him on immigration. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker characterized his immigration proposal as “similar” to Trump’s, and said he might support ending birthright citizenship—a call echoed by Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, among others. Even Jeb Bush, who supports continuing to grant citizenship to all those born in the U.S., unapologetically invoked the controversial term “anchor baby” to describe the issue.

The media’s  discussion of why this kind of talk spells trouble for the Republican Party in the 2016 presidential election has focused on Latinos. Obama trounced Romney by 71-27 percent among Latinos, a bloc that made up 10 percent of the voters in 2012. The gap was even larger (73-26 percent) among Asian-Americans, who were 3 percent of the electorate. Since most recent immigrants hail overwhelmingly from either Asia or Latin America, campaign weeks like this make it less likely that Republicans will make gains with either group in 2016.

Do Americans think undocumented immigrants should be able to become citizens?

But what’s gone largely unnoticed is that Republicans’ tough talk on immigration is at odds with a majority of Americans considered as a whole. Over the last decade, American public support for immigrants—and specifically, for allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain U.S. citizenship if they meet certain requirements—has been remarkably strong.


As shown above, in every survey since 2006, approval of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants has never dipped below 50 percent—and in many polls it’s been consistently much higher than that.  (Wording for these questions and the data can be found at PollingReport.com.) That support persisted during the Great Recession and its aftermath—and it’s stronger now than at any time in the recent past.

[Here’s what Donald Trump gets wrong about immigration]

Heck, even a majority of Republicans favored immigration reform that would allow long-term undocumented immigrants to become citizens, according to Gallup’s poll earlier this summer. And yet none of the leading candidates for the GOP nomination has expressed support for such a proposal.

Does immigration help or hurt the U.S.?

Americans are more divided over this question, which has been asked in surveys going back to 2005. But even here, all the polls conducted since 2012 show that “helps” leads by a slim plurality over “hurts.”

Overall, U.S. opinion on the issue of immigration has been remarkably stable and supportive over the past decade. It would be a mistake to interpret the recent Republican presidential candidates’ rhetoric as a sign that Americans have suddenly soured on immigrants. Trump and his rivals are appealing for the votes of a narrow—if fervent—slice of the G.O.P primary electorate. But in doing so, they are taking positions that are far out of step with the majority of Americans who will be voting in November 2016.