Public opinion in the United States about immigration has been remarkably stable over the years, while a political partisanship gap emerged. Republicans care about immigration; Democrats and Independents don’t. Neither party articulates a coherent immigration vision.
1960s through mid 1990s
Over generations, popular sentiment has been vaguely inclined to not to increase immigration, but also not to cut it back. Party lines were not clearly drawn because both parties were internally conflicted.
James Gimpel wrote this month that “A 1965 Gallup survey showed that….Republicans and Democrats were divided internally, with similar shares of respondents in both parties favoring a decrease. In 1977, a survey continued to show that partisan differences were negligible. In 1986, as the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passing with a bipartisan congressional majority, a CBS News/New York Times poll recorded no statistically significant partisan differences in opinion toward overall immigration levels.”
In recent years public opinion *on the whole* has drifted slightly less concerned about immigration. Since 1999, Gallup polls show that people favoring a decrease in immigration went from about 43% in 1999 to about 36% in 2015; and those wanting to keep the present level stayed at about 40% throughout. Young people and higher income people are significantly more friendly to immigration (as is the case also in Europe).
Since 1990s, party divide
Partisanship shot up starting in the mid 1990s, The two topics that have most sharply divided parties have been immigration and taxes. The Republican messaging has almost entirely been on law enforcement issues, mainly illegal immigrants and a supposedly (but statistically non-existent) higher crime rate of illegal immigrants.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs polls have tracked the party divide on immigration. During 1998 – 2002, Dems and Reps were in consensus about the ill effects of “mass immigration,” and for both the 9/11 attack sharply heightened concerns about illegal immigration. Since then Rep concern about mass immigration stayed high but most Dems and, by even more, Independents stopped expressing concern. And a similar divide emerged about illegal immigration. Only Reps still consider this a burning issue.
Repubican mmigration policy as a subcategory of law-and-order policy
Reps have conflated the issue of immigration with the issue of law and order. Gimpel told me that the persistence of illegal immigrants is “patently unfair” in the minds of many. Pew Research polls suggest that Reps and Dem come down very differently on the unfairness question. With much less vigor, Reps equate high levels of immigration with job loss of native-born Americans. The 2016 Republican Convention platform’s section on immigration demands that legal immigration be cut back, “in light of the alarming levels of unemployment and underemployment in this country.”