Do Americans want to change the U.S. immigration system — and if so, how?

The Trump administration and some of its allies in Congress are pretty sure they know the answer. Donald Trump campaigned heavily on reducing immigration. In his speech to Congress last month, he called for a “merit-based” immigration policy. Since then, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and David Perdue (Ga.) have jointly offered legislation that would significantly reduce legal admissions by allowing citizens and legal permanent residents to sponsor a narrower set of people, and cutting “diversity” visas altogether.

That would change the system. For the past five decades, U.S. immigration policy has ranked family reunification as its top priority. Of the 1 million permanent resident visas (“green cards”) the United States gives out each year, about two-thirds are given to U.S. citizens’ close relatives (spouses, children, siblings and married adult children). Only 15 percent of those visas are awarded based on skills, and another 15 percent go to asylum seekers and refugees.

Are Republicans right? Do Americans want more skilled workers and fewer family members? Our research suggests that it’s not that simple.

It’s true that, to no one’s surprise, Americans say they prefer highly educated, English-proficient and employed immigrants (see, for example, recent work by political scientists Jens Hainmueller and Daniel Hopkins). That said, they also value family, and they don’t want to sharply cut visas for family members so that skilled immigrants can go to the front of the line.

How we did our research

In one project, we surveyed 1,000 respondents on a nationally representative Internet survey fielded in 2013, randomly assigning them to one of two conditions. One group was asked whether immigration should be increased, decreased or kept the same. The second was also asked three more questions, in random order, about whether to increase, decrease or leave unchanged the number of visas for family-based, skill-based or refugee immigrants.

In keeping with 50  years of survey evidence, respondents in the abstract “control” condition wanted to cut back legal immigration. But the devil is in the details. When also asked which specific immigrant categories should be cut, large majorities rejected reducing any group, as you can see in the figure below.

So we tried again. We showed another group of respondents a pie chart in which they could see the percentage of immigrants currently coming to the United States in each category. This communicated: 1) that those three categories account for 95 percent of legal immigration and 2) that the vast majority of immigrants come to join their families.

Faced with this chart, respondents did increase the percentage of visas given to the other categories — but they did not support reducing overall immigration. Of this group, only 32 percent said there should be fewer family reunification visas. That’s more than we found among those who didn’t see the pie chart, when only 21 percent wanted to reduce the percentage of family reunification visas. But it’s far shy of the 50 percent who, asked about immigration in the abstract, wanted it cut.

Meanwhile, 45 percent of the respondents who saw the pie chart wanted to increase skilled immigration and only 22 percent wanted to reduce it. Those numbers were similar for refugee admissions: 42 percent to 22 percent.

We followed this up by embedding questions in the 2015 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), a nationally representative Internet survey of U.S. citizens conducted each year by YouGov. There, we first asked our 1,250 respondents, again in the abstract, whether the United States should increase or reduce legal immigration. We then told them the specific percentages of visas in each of the three big categories, and that those visas brought in approximately 1 million people each year. By doing so, we were explicitly drawing attention to the sheer number of immigrants admitted every year. Then we asked them all the more specific questions about increasing or decreasing family-based, skilled and refugee immigration.

Here, too, in the abstract, restrictionism holds an edge: 36 percent of Americans wanted to reduce immigration while 28 percent wanted to increase it. But this flipped when people weighed in on family-based visas (23 percent favoring a decrease vs. 32 percent for increasing), skilled visas (22 percent favoring a decrease vs. 37 percent for increasing), and refugee visas (26 percent favoring decrease vs. 37 percent for increasing).

Americans do not need to be tricked or manipulated into revealing their ambivalence about immigration. We asked, “If the total number of legal immigrants allowed into the country were kept about the same, which of the following changes would you prefer, or would you not want to make either of these changes?” The options were:

  • Increase visas awarded for family reunification and decrease visas awarded to skilled workers;
  • Increase visas awarded to skilled workers and decrease visas awarded for family reunification;
  • Do not make either of these changes.

A small group — 23 percent — wanted to increase skilled immigration; a smaller group — 19 percent — wanted more family reunification. But the vast majority — 58 percent — supported neither. That’s not a ringing endorsement for upending the status quo.

Have Americans changed their points of view since 2015?

Of course, the United States has changed in since 2015. Our current president has talked about how it would improve national security and public safety if he instituted “Muslim bans,” “extreme vetting” and a wall along our southern border to keep out the “bad hombres” coming in from Latin America. Do Americans have a new and different attitude today?

Not so much. A few polls show support for temporary halts to travel from “seven predominantly Muslim countries.” But that turns to opposition when temporary cuts become “indefinite.” A Jan. 30-31 Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans opposed “indefinitely suspending the United States’ Syrian refugee program,” while only 36 percent favored it.

Similarly, by a margin of 55 percent to 42 percent, the public opposed a “temporary ban on entry into the U.S. from seven predominantly Muslim countries.” A more recent poll by Quinnipiac found even stronger opposition to these proposals. Americans opposed a 90-day travel ban by 53 percent to 45 percent. They were even more strongly opposed (by 70 percent to 26 percent) to “suspending all immigration of Syrian refugees to the U.S. indefinitely.” The same poll found 60 percent opposed “suspending the immigration of all refugees to the U.S., regardless of where they are coming from, for 120 days.”

Public opinion on immigration is complex.

Opposition in the abstract dissolves when people think about specifics. Americans almost universally value human capital and skills. But they also want families to be together. In fact, faced with the current limits, they sometimes actually want to increase legal immigration overall.

As with the health-care bill, Trump and GOP elites may wish to lead, but the public may not follow.

Jack Citrin is Heller Professor of political science at the University of California at Berkeley.

Morris Levy is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Southern California.

Matthew Wright is an associate professor of government at American University.