August 25, 2016

On Immigration Policy, Partisan Differences but Also Some Common Ground

Relatively few express negative views of undocumented immigrants

Survey report

The public is divided over many aspects of U.S. immigration policy. However, when asked about the priorities for policy toward illegal immigration, more Americans say better border security and a path to citizenship should be given equal priority than favor either approach individually.

The new national survey, conducted August 9-16 among 2,010 adults, also finds that a large majority (76%) says that undocumented immigrants are as hard-working and honest as U.S. citizens, while 67% say they are no more likely than citizens to commit serious crimes. The survey also finds continued public opposition to building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border: 61% oppose this proposal, which is little changed from earlier this year.

Overall, 29% of the public prioritizes “creating a way for immigrants already here illegally to become citizens if they meet certain requirements,” while (24%) say the focus should be on “better border security and stronger enforcement of immigration laws.” However, when given the option, a 45% plurality does say that both should be given equal priority.

In 2014, approximately 11.3 million undocumented immigrants were living in the United States, according to preliminary Pew Research Center estimates based on government data – a population that has largely remained stable since 2009. Undocumented immigrants from Mexico make up the largest share of this population, though the number of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the U.S. has declined since 2007.

Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 41% say better border security and stronger law enforcement should be the focus in dealing with illegal immigration; about as many (45%), however, say that both stronger law enforcement and a path to citizenship should be given equal priority. Just 12% say creating a way for those in the U.S. illegally to become citizens should be the main priority.

And among Democrats, while 43% call for a focus on creating a way for immigrants here illegally to become citizens, a comparable share (47%) think both approaches should be given equal priority. Only 9% think better border security alone should be the priority.

However, when pushed to choose a single focus, those who think both should be given equal weight tend to fall in line with the preferred positions of others in their party. Overall, 69% of Republicans say stronger law enforcement is the bigger priority, while fewer (27%) say the country should prioritize a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally. Among Democrats, the reverse is true: An overwhelming majority (79%) prioritize a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally, if they have to choose one approach, while 20% think stronger law enforcement and border security should be the priority.

The current findings are in keeping with recent years, when pluralities have said both approaches to immigration policy – enhanced security and a path to citizenship – should be equally prioritized, though this is the first time a slightly larger share has preferred creating a path to citizenship to enhancing security (29% vs. 24%).

Views of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

Among the public overall, 71% say undocumented immigrants living in the United States mostly fill jobs citizens do not want, while just 24% say they mostly take jobs citizens want. About three-quarters of Americans (76%) say undocumented immigrants are “as honest and hard-working” as U.S. citizens, while 67% say they are no more likely than U.S. citizens to commit serious crimes.

As with views of immigration policy priorities, partisans differ in views of undocumented immigrants. Yet majorities of both Democrats (79%) and Republicans (63%) say that those who are in the U.S. illegally mostly take jobs U.S. citizens don’t want. Majorities in both parties also say undocumented immigrants are as honest and hard-working as U.S. citizens (87% of Democrats, 65% of Republicans).

There is a sharper divide in perceptions of criminality among undocumented immigrants. By a wide margin (80% to 15%), Democrats say those in the U.S. illegally are no more likely than citizens to commit serious crimes. Among Republicans, about half (52%) say undocumented immigrants are not more likely than citizens to commit serious crimes, but 42% say they are – more than double the share of Democrats who say this.

Hispanics overwhelmingly think undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. are as honest and hardworking as American citizens (86%), and that they fill jobs that American citizens do not want (79%); and Hispanics are somewhat more likely than white and black Americans to express these views. Similarly, more Hispanics than whites think undocumented immigrants are no more likely than American citizens to commit serious crimes: Nearly three-quarters of Hispanics think this (74%), compared with two-thirds of whites.

Border wall continues to draw opposition

Most Americans today continue to oppose building a wall along the entire border with Mexico: 61% express opposition to the wall, while 36% are in favor. These attitudes have changed little over the past year.

Differences across demographic and political groups remain stark. While more whites say they are opposed (54%) than say they are in favor (43%) of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, they are far less likely than blacks and Hispanics to oppose the proposed wall. Roughly three-quarters of both blacks (76%) and Hispanics (76%) say they oppose the proposal, while just about one-in-five favor the wall.

Partisan differences in opinion also are wide: A 63% majority of Republicans and Republican leaners support building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, while 34% stand opposed to it. By contrast, an overwhelming share of Democrats (84%) are opposed to the wall, while just 14% are in favor.

Immigration policy and the 2016 campaign

The differences between registered voters who support Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in their characterizations of undocumented immigrants, support for the U.S.-Mexico border wall and priorities for dealing with illegal immigration largely mirror partisan differences on these issues.

But among Trump backers in particular, there are some notable differences in these views by strength of support for the candidate. Half of all Trump supporters say undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. are more likely than American citizens to commit serious crimes. However, 59% of Trump supporters who support him strongly say this, compared with 42% of those who do not support him strongly.

Similarly, while fewer than three-in-ten Trump backers who only moderately support the candidate think that undocumented immigrants mostly fill jobs American citizens would like to have (29%), these views are somewhat more prevalent among those who support Trump strongly (41%).

There are only modest differences in views of undocumented immigrants between those who support Clinton strongly and those who do so only moderately.

Similarly, a proposed border wall draws support from 91% of those who support Trump strongly, compared with 67% of those who do not.

Clinton backers are solidly opposed regardless of strength of support for her candidacy. Fully 88% of Clinton supporters express opposition, compared with 10% who are in favor of a wall along the entire border with Mexico.