Recent public opinion polls have highlighted how important an issue immigration is to Americans, particularly those who vote.
Immigration Remains a Top Issue
A Harvard CAPS/Harris poll released January 22 found that among U.S. voters (registered) immigration was the top issue of concern at 38%. Immigration topped healthcare, 36%. The Hill speculated that immigration “could play an outsize role in 2020,” as it certainly did in the election of President Trump in 2016.
The Harvard CAPS/Harris poll also found U.S. voters “oppose the building of a wall along the southern border” 55% to 45%. This shows support is still strong for the President’s signature issue despite total opposition by Democratic leadership and overwhelmingly negative coverage by the corporate media. But does this question adequately measure where voters stand on border security?
While President Trump does want barriers “along the southern border” the question is too vague in describing what the current debate is actually about. The shutdown impasse is due to the President requesting $5.7 billion for barriers and House Speaker Pelosi vowing “not one penny more” for an “immoral wall” beyond the $1.3 billion the Democrats have already agreed to. The poll question could be misunderstood by respondents as asking whether or not they support a concrete wall along the entire 2,000 miles of the southern border, something the neither the President nor anyone in Congress is demanding.
Another question in the poll asked about a “security barrier” along border. This response was almost evenly split, 49% in support and 51% opposing. This is a much better question, even if only slightly tweaked, and it shows that sloganeering (Build the Wall!) is no substitute for good governance ("Our proposed structures will be in pre-determined, high-risk locations that have been specifically identified by the border patrol.").
No matter the attitude about walls or barriers on the border, the poll did find that 49% of registered voters see border security as a serious problem, while another 36% see it as a minor problem. Put together 85% of voters see border security as a problem compared to 16% of those who do not. This is in-line with an early January Politico/Morning Consult poll that found 79% of registered voters believe illegal immigration is a problem. A Rasmussen poll released January 11 found 48% of likely voters think the government is doing too little to stop illegal immigration, with 28% saying the government is doing too much.
Americans Want Merit-Based Immigration
Pew Research Center also released a poll on January 22 indicating that a majority of Americans support continued high-skill immigration. Pew said “Roughly eight-in-ten U.S. adults (78%) support encouraging highly skilled people to immigrate and work in the U.S.” According to Pew, this result corresponded with strong support for high-skill immigration in other highly developed countries.
Pew reported that even among those who want less immigration support for high-skilled immigration was at 63%, and linked to its own earlier poll that found 29% of Americans want less immigration, 24% want more, and 44% want “about the same.”
There are two important things to note about these Pew numbers. The first is that Pew does not inform respondents what the level of immigration to the United States is (one million a year on average since 1990.) By not doing so, and by not asking how many immigrants the United States should be admitting each year, Pew is able to achieve the Goldilocks Effect.
Americans overwhelmingly support continued immigration, and most Americans are unaware of how many immigrants are admitted every year. Every poll finds that Americans are generally favorable toward immigration, so the Pew question reveals very little about the specific immigration polices Americans really want.
A poll question that asked "Is war good or bad?" would yield an obvious result. A question asking "Should the U.S. fight more wars in the Middle East, fewer, or the same?" may give us a little insight into U.S. foreign policy, but it tells us almost nothing about where the public stands on U.S. military intervention in Syria.
In conducting its poll, Pew makes “up to seven phone calls...to complete the interview with the selected respondent.” In such an extended interview it is very likely that the tendency for the respondent to give an answer he/she believes the questioner wants to hear will be more pronounced. Given the long and concerted effort by advocacy groups, many politicians, and, most importantly, the corporate media over the last two decades to paint any support for reduction as “anti-immigrant,” it should surprise no one that a strong plurality of Americans say the current level is “just right.” (We also see the Goldilocks Effect in the Gallup poll on immigration.)
Is Everyone Over 18 Currently Residing in the U.S. an American?
The second aspect of Pew polls that affects the results and limits their predictive value for policy outcomes is the poll sample. Most would understand “Americans” to mean U.S. citizens but that is not the case with Pew polls. For them, an “American” is anyone over 18 who chooses to participate; which can include those who are not registered to vote, those who are not U.S. citizens, and even those who are not legal U.S. residents. There is nothing in any way deceptive about Pew’s methodology, but the wording of their results does give the impression that support for certain immigration policies by “Americans” means that support comes from the citizenry, and therefore, has more support among voters than is actually the case.
When given a choice of how many immigrants the U.S. should admit, there is overwhelming support for immigration reduction among registered voters (Harvard-Harris, January 2018) and likely voters (Pulse Opinion, Feb. 2017 -Mar. 2018). These results tell us a lot more about how immigration politics and policy making will play out in the near future.
It is also no surprise that Americans who want to reduce overall immigration still want immigration to continue and would rather admit immigrants on the basis of education and skills. Nor is it surprising that politicians would refuse to espouse support for policies that go against the preferences of a strong majority of voters; which is why it’s difficult to find an elected member of Congress who campaigned on increasing immigration.
There are bad polls and disreputable polling companies, but most polls are conducted using standard methodological protocols. The key to understanding the usefulness of a poll when it comes to gauging public opinion and how that affects the political discourse in Washington is to look at how the questions are being asked and who are being asked the questions.
Remember when we were told voters overwhelmingly supported the Gang of Eight?
ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA
Updated: Fri, Feb 8th 2019 @ 8:30am EST