Stephen Miller. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA)
Opinion writer

A new Quinnipiac poll probes public attitudes toward the asylum crisis in a way I haven’t seen before — and the findings suggest that Democrats really should get over this reflexive belief that President Trump possesses magical political powers when it comes to this issue.

The Quinnipiac poll asks about a complex policy challenge at the core of this whole situation — what to do about migrants while they are awaiting hearings — and the results suggest that Americans are more tolerant toward this problem than you might have expected.

The poll frames the question this way:

Which comes closer to your point of view: A) it is better to keep all undocumented immigrants in detention centers, even if it causes overcrowding and bad conditions, or B) it is better to allow some undocumented immigrants to be released under supervision if there is not sufficient room, even if it means some of them will not return for their court dates?

Among voters overall, a majority, 53 percent, favor Option B — releasing migrants even if some won’t return to court. Only 31 percent support continuing to detain them in bad conditions.

Independents favor Option B by 52 percent to 30 percent. Women favor it by 57 percent to 25 percent. And college-educated whites favor it by 61 percent to 29 percent. This suggests again that large swaths of white voters are more tolerant toward undocumented migrants than our political discourse tends to suggest.

Even non-college-educated whites, who (according to pundits) supposedly thrill to every syllable of anti-immigrant demagoguery that tumbles from Trump’s lips, favor Option B by 42 percent to 39 percent.

That’s encouraging, because this question sits atop a perilous fault line in the debate. One core argument that Trump and adviser Stephen Miller make is that the fact that families are released into the interior pending hearings is to be despised. Their claim is that this draws them here — it lets them game the system, by asking for asylum when they don’t merit it, before absconding while awaiting hearings.

People who favor restricting immigration (albeit not as drastically as Trump wants) sometimes suggest Trump has the winning argument. Their standard move is to say something like, “If Democrats don’t support controlling our borders, Trump’s demagoguery will win.”

The frequent implication is that Democrats must grant the premise of Trump’s argument — that release of migrants equates to an alarming loss of border control and a severe blow to our national sovereignty. The idea is that if Democrats don’t grant this premise — and don’t accept new restrictions on asylum seeking as a result — they are in denial about the realities of public opinion.

But these findings suggest these realities might be more complicated than that.

Democrats in Congress have offered numerous plans for the asylum crisis. One core proposal is to dramatically expand the family case management system — a government pilot program Trump ended — which tracks and provides legal and social services to asylum seekers.

The underlying idea is that the release of families is eminently manageable and is not necessarily a bad thing. Families actually do show up for hearings at very high rates. The best statistics show this, and also show that the rate climbs even higher when they have lawyers. The family case management program Democrats would fund had been hugely successful in getting families to show up.

The guiding assumption is that if you make it more likely that families will succeed in qualifying for asylum, while also beefing up efforts to track and support them, they will show up. Combine this with investments in unclogging court backlogs, and the system will work better.

The Quinnipiac poll suggests the public might understand the problem along these lines — as a messy one with no perfect solutions, but also one that doesn’t justify caging migrants in horrible conditions.

Now, the poll does not perfectly capture the policy dilemma here. It doesn’t ask whether voters would accept family release as a matter of policy — just as an alternative to awful detention conditions. But it also tilts the framing against asylum seekers, by treating it as given that many wouldn’t show up for hearings.

Yet majorities still would release them, suggesting that Americans view them sympathetically and not as a threat, and oppose any serious retreat on our humanitarian commitments to them. And there are many things we can do to better manage this situation without such a retreat, as this new Migration Policy Institute report details.

On the bigger picture, see this terrific paper by Tom Jawetz outlining how such sanely managed processes are more in keeping with the rule of law than Trump’s cruel, chaotic approach is, despite his claim that he represents order and Democrats represent “open borders.”

The public is recoiling at all the cruelty to migrants. The poll finds that 62 percent of voters say the government isn’t doing enough to ensure humane conditions, and that 68 percent say those conditions are a serious problem. And fully 70 percent say immigration is good for the country.

The argument over what to do about the families is a complicated one. But it’s one Democrats can win.

Read more:

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Catherine Rampell: Finally, a family separation story with a happy ending

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