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Poll: Percentage of Democrats who see border ‘crisis’ jumps 17 points since January amid spike in migrant families

President Trump at the U.S.-Mexico border in Calexico, Calif., in early April. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

More than a third of Americans say that illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border is at a “crisis,” up 11 percentage points since January as Democrats have grown sharply more concerned about the issue, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

At the same time, Americans assign a similar level of blame to congressional Democrats and President Trump for the situation, the survey finds, signaling that both political parties face challenges on immigration heading into the 2020 presidential election cycle.

The Trump administration is struggling to handle a surge of migrant families arriving at the southern border with Mexico, where the number of apprehensions by Customs and Border Protection topped 100,000 in March, the largest monthly total in a dozen years, according to federal data. Although Trump responded by installing new leadership at the Department of Homeland Security three weeks ago, the number of migrants was on pace to reach a similar level in April, authorities said.

Read full poll results | How the poll was conducted

The poll, conducted by cellular and landline telephone between April 22 and 25, finds that 35 percent of Americans believe the situation is a crisis, up from 24 percent in January. While that figure included a modest increase among Republicans and independents, the percentage of Democrats who agree jumped from 7 percent to 24 percent, nearly a quarter of the party.

A still-larger 45 percent plurality of the public overall says illegal immigration across the southern border is a serious problem but not a crisis, while 18 percent say it is not a serious problem.

The shifting views have altered the political calculus for Democrats, including the 20 candidates already in the race for the party’s presidential nomination, who have sought to challenge Trump’s hard-line rhetoric on immigration. Having once accused the president of falsely fanning public fears over a nonexistent crisis, Democrats have shifted to emphasizing the humanitarian challenges at the border, while still accusing Trump of demonizing immigrants and pursuing policies that have exacerbated the problems.

Trump’s policies “have been an absolute failure for our country,” former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro, campaigning for the 2020 Democratic nomination, said at an early-April rally in that city. He has released an immigration plan that would decriminalize unauthorized border crossings.

But Trump has countered by trying to pin blame on Democrats for opposing hard-line policies that, he argues, would send a deterrence message to the record number of Central American families seeking asylum in the United States. In an interview with Fox News on Sunday, Trump noted that he reversed his administration’s “no tolerance” policy of separating immigrant families last summer amid a political backlash — only to see the number of families increase sixfold since then, according to federal data.

“The problem is you have 10 times more people coming up with their families,” Trump said in the interview, exaggerating the numbers. “It’s like Disneyland now.”

The Post-ABC poll finds that 64 percent of Americans oppose Trump’s use of an emergency declaration in February to divert billions of dollars in federal funds from other programs to build a border wall — with 55 percent saying they “strongly oppose.”

More women (71 percent) than men (57 percent) are opposed to Trump’s declaration, and while a majority of all age groups oppose it, a larger share of younger Americans are opposed to it than older Americans.

A larger share of nonwhite Americans (82 percent), including 92 percent of African Americans, oppose the move, while a slim 54 percent majority of whites also oppose it.

More broadly, 57 percent of all adults disapprove of the way Trump is handling immigration in general, similar to the 54 percent who disapprove of his overall job performance. But 39 percent approve of Trump’s handling of immigration, up slightly from 35 percent in 2017. That includes 74 percent of Republicans, a sign that the president’s conservative base is sticking with him.

The poll shows a sharp divide among Americans over who is to blame for the growing numbers at the border. Thirty-five percent blame congressional Democrats, while 32 percent blame Trump, a breakdown driven largely along party lines.

A majority of Democrats blame Trump (62 percent) while a majority of Republicans blame congressional Democrats (71 percent). Independents are split about evenly.

The intensity of feelings about Trump’s immigration agenda could be a liability for the president for his 2020 campaign. A 42 percent plurality of registered voters say Trump’s handling of illegal immigration makes them more likely to oppose his reelection. An additional 34 percent say it makes them more likely to support him, while 22 percent say his handling of the issue is not a factor in their vote.

The president, who made stopping illegal immigration the centerpiece of his 2016 campaign, has continued to count the issue as central to his chances for reelection, and he has played to his conservative base even amid concerns in the White House that the rising level of border crossings threatens to undercut his message that his administration has been effective.

At a campaign rally in Green Bay, Wis., on Saturday, Trump boasted about a secret White House plan that aimed to have Immigration and Customs Enforcement release undocumented immigrants into “sanctuary cities” that do not always cooperate with federal enforcement efforts, as a way to target Trump’s political opponents, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who represents San Francisco.

“I’m proud to tell you that was my sick idea,” Trump told the crowd, referring to the plan. The idea was rejected in November and again in February by ICE, whose lawyers deemed it to be inappropriate. The Post first disclosed the existence of the plan in a report three weeks ago.

Americans are roughly equally divided between how the country should handle asylum protections for migrants — a major priority for the Trump White House, which has attempted to implement policies, blocked by federal courts, that would ban Central Americans from applying.

Trump aides have argued the asylum system makes it too difficult to quickly deport Central American migrants, especially families and children, who are usually released into the United States to await immigration court hearings, a process that can take more than a year amid huge backlogs.

The poll finds Americans in nearly a three-way divide over asylum protection laws, with 30 percent saying it should be harder for undocumented immigrants to request asylum, 27 percent saying it should be easier and 34 percent saying asylum protection should be left as it is now.

A 46 percent plurality of Republicans say asylum should be harder to claim, while Democrats are split between whether it should be left as it is now (40 percent) or made easier (38 percent).

The Post-ABC poll was conducted among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, with 65 percent reached on cellphones and 35 percent on landlines. Results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for the full sample.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.