Polls: Immigration Second-Most Important Problem for Americans

Results suggest Biden doesn’t have the mandate for his unlimited immigration policies that he thinks he does

By Andrew R. Arthur on May 20, 2021

On May 13, global research firm Ipsos released a “Core Political Data” poll of 1,005 American adults, in conjunction with the Reuters news service. A plurality (48 percent) of respondents believe things in this country are “on the wrong track”, while 37 percent said they are “on the right track”. One likely reason for this dismal assessment is that “immigration” tied for second as the “most important problem facing America” — and the president’s handling of immigration is not good, by any metric.

Apprehensions of migrants at the Southwest border in April reached a 21-year high (not counting more than 40,000 people who evaded Border Patrol apprehension last month), while at the same time ICE monthly removals are at an all-time low.

Statements by administration officials (including DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas) suggest that the White House is not that displeased with these outcomes — yet.

That does not mean, however, that the American people agree. Twelve percent of those polled by Ipsos identified “immigration” as the most important problem in the United States, placing the issue second only to the catch-all “economy, unemployment, and jobs”, at 23 percent.

With inflation clocking up the largest 12-month increase since September 2008, the unemployment rate unchanged in April at 6.1 percent (well above its pre-pandemic level, when it averaged below 4 percent), and 8.12 million jobs unfilled at the end of March, echoes of the “Great Recession” abound.

Thus, it is no wonder that the “economy, unemployment, and jobs” are weighing heavily on Americans’ minds.

That said, the current immigration situation is every bit as bad as the economic situation, as explained above. The interesting thing is how many Americans now recognize that fact.

A chart tracking immigration as an identified problem shows peaks and valleys in Americans’ opinions on the subject, which roughly tracks (or slightly lags) the monthly number of Border Patrol apprehensions at the Southwest border.

The president rode into office having proposed immigration policies that were the mirror opposite of his predecessor’s (the word “Trump” appears 37 times on his campaign’s immigration website, never approvingly), but immigration never gained much attention during the run-up to the election.

Perhaps Biden believed that Americans were 100 percent behind his unlimited immigration plans. The president’s policies are driving the surge of migrants entering illegally and the low number of actual removals; having gotten a look at the effects of those policies, Americans as a whole are not terribly pleased.

That disapproval breaks down along party lines: Just 4 percent of Democrats identified immigration as the most important problem facing the United States today, while 21 percent of Republicans did. That is to be somewhat expected, but the interesting takeaway is that 11 percent of Independents did, too.

They will be key swing voters in the mid-term elections. If they continue to believe that immigration is a problem, the Democrats could lose the House in November 2022, and possibly the Senate, as well.

Twenty-three percent of respondents stated that Biden should prioritize immigration (they got to pick two priorities), just behind the U.S. economy (33 percent) and COVID-19 (32 percent), and, significantly, tied with employment and jobs (also 23 percent).

That assessment also breaks down along party lines: Just 7 percent of Democrats believed that Biden should prioritize immigration, while 40 percent of Republicans and (again importantly) 25 percent of Independents wanted immigration to be a priority.

Forty-two percent of respondents approved of Biden’s handling of immigration, but once more, where those respondents sit politically appears to have influenced their responses.

An overwhelming 72 percent of Democrats approved of the president’s handling of immigration, but just 13 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of Democrats agreed. So, plainly, the president’s fellow partisans like the current situation just fine, but they may be the outliers.

That said, the results may be worse for the president than even this poll shows, because it has what appears to be a partisan skew: More than 43 percent of respondents were Democrats, while fewer than 40 percent were Republicans and just less than 11 percent were Independents.

In Gallup polling conducted between April 1 and 21, by contrast, 31 percent of respondents identified as Democrats, 26 percent as Republicans, and 40 percent as Independents, suggesting that Ipsos may have overpolled both Democrats and Republicans.

The “credibility interval” (statistical margins of error are not applicable to online polls like Ipsos’s, according to the firm) was plus or minus 3.5 percent for all adults, 5.4 percent for Democrats, 5.6 percent for Republicans, and a whopping 10.7 percent for Independents.

This is just one poll, and Biden has only been president for about four months, so impressions of his handling of immigration could change. Illegal migration will probably drop as the weather at the Southwest border gets hot, and ICE could always ditch the interim guidance that has put most removals (and interior enforcement generally) on hold.

The latter development is unlikely, while the former may not make that much difference when it comes to public opinion: This poll was taken after the administration’s recent PR offensive, which was intended to show that things at the border are improving.

Mark Twain once stated: “Give a man a reputation as an early riser and he can sleep 'til noon.” That runs both ways. The president may not want a reputation as a failure in handling immigration, but absent a big course correction from the White House soon, it will probably stick — to his detriment.