The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

America’s pro-immigration moment wanes

President Donald Trump comforts Daria Ortiz while speaking at the White House in February 2020 about an undocumented immigrant who allegedly murdered her grandmother. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
4 min

Nearly six years ago, I wrote what was admittedly something of a hot take.

Despite Donald Trump having run for president using some of the ugliest immigration rhetoric in modern history, I argued that if any president could accomplish long-elusive comprehensive immigration reform, he might be the one. He had such credibility on the issue with the right wing, the logic went, that he could bring conservatives along in a way President George W. Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) previously failed to.

It obviously didn’t happen (nor, it bears noting, did we predict it actually would come to fruition). But new polling reinforces that the Trump era provided an unusually conducive environment for a debate that never really happened.

Put plainly: The American people suddenly became more pro-immigration.

Since 2001, Gallup has regularly tested Americans views on immigration, including whether they are satisfied with current immigration levels. If they were dissatisfied, it asked whether they would like to see increased immigration or decreased immigration.

Over that span, only four times did it show less than 30 percent saying they wanted immigration decreased. All four landed during Trump’s time in office, between 2018 and when Trump departed in 2021. And since Trump left, it’s now back up to 40 percent. That’s the second-highest reading since 2012. While two years ago the numbers who said they wanted immigration increased and decreased were similar, there are now five times as many in the latter camp.

And it’s not the only poll to suggest pro-immigration views rising and now falling.

Other polls have regularly asked whether people want to see legal immigration increased or decreased. When Trump caught the 2016 GOP primary by storm, in part thanks to his harsh rhetoric about undocumented immigrants, these polls almost always showed more wanted it decreased than increased.

A Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll from June 2016 showed 39 percent wanted it decreased, while just 18 percent wanted it increased. (The others preferred it kept as is.)

But by June 2018, a Quinnipiac University poll showed a reversal: Thirty percent wanted it increased, compared with 17 percent who wanted it decreased. Polls from CBS News and the Associated Press in 2019 also showed more wanted it increased than decreased, including by double digits in the AP-NORC poll.

And now two new polls since the 2022 election suggest that, too, has flipped back. An ABC News-Ipsos poll in October showed “decreased” leading “increased.” And a newer Fox News poll showed 49 percent want legal immigration decreased, while 43 percent want it increased (this one didn’t off “as is” as an option).

Some of the momentary increase in pro-immigration sentiment probably owed to Republican perceptions that Trump got illegal immigration under control (even as border apprehensions during his presidency were at similar levels as during the two years before he took office). The biggest increase we’re seeing now, in respondents calling for less overall immigration, is among Republicans.

It’s also possible so-called negative partisanship took hold, with those who didn’t like Trump warming to the pro-immigration position opposite him. Whatever the case, the number of people saying immigration was a “good thing” peaked under Trump.

Polls still show very strong support for the concept of comprehensive immigration reform. An NBC News survey last month showed 8 in 10 thought Congress should provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements and pass a background check; 68 percent felt that way strongly. This remains an overwhelmingly popular policy, at least when you ask about it broadly and before you get into the details of how it would work.

But those details matter — as does the tenor of public opinion about immigration more generally.. If one of the two major parties focuses much more on border security, as the GOP is doing now amid a sharp increase in border apprehensions, that side will be far less likely to have an appetite for a path to citizenship. Such issues seem much more politically tractable when Americans suddenly feel less concerned, for whatever reason, about the number of immigrants entering the country.

Not that Trump ever really showed significant interest in passing comprehensive immigration reform. Despite entreaties from the likes of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who said Trump “has an ability to solve the problem unlike anybody in recent times,” Trump knew such a move would risk a conservative backlash. And avoiding anything that might inflame the base was his North Star. By the 2020 campaign, he was spotlighting people who were victims of crimes perpetrated by undocumented immigrants.

But the point stands that, at least by one measure — public receptiveness — it probably stood a better chance on his watch than at any point in the 21st century. Pro-immigration sentiment peaked. And now it’s falling.