Media Mislead on Pew Poll about Border Wall

By Jon Feere on August 26, 2016

All too often, immigration polls are not designed to get at what Americans really think about immigration, but instead are written to create a certain narrative. Many polls are financed by activist groups who simply want to create the appearance of widespread public support for amnesty. The advocates have two main goals: (1) provide lobbyists with polling data that they can use to browbeat politicians into supporting their cheap-labor, open-border agenda; and (2) encourage the media to write headlines that don't really reflect the findings, but nevertheless advance the notion that Americans love open borders.

The Pew Research Center has done just that with a new poll. The poll contains a few different questions, but the one getting all the press asks Americans about building a border wall.

Specifically, Pew asks: "All in all, would you favor or oppose building a wall along the entire border with Mexico?" According to Pew, 61 percent of Americans oppose building a wall along the entire border with Mexico.

A reporter happened to bring this poll to my attention hours before it got into the news cycle, and I noted that it's not that informative of a question because of the weasel word "entire". I explained that even presidential candidate Donald Trump isn't proposing building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. In other words, I noted that even though I'm in favor of a border fence because it would help deter some illegal immigration and drug trafficking, I would have responded "no" to that question due to the fact that there are locations along the border with geography that serves as a natural barrier.

I also told the reporter that I bet most reporters would not mention the word "entire" when reporting the results.

Sure enough, I was right. And, as is predictable, the media is taking it a step further by using their mischaracterization of the poll to discredit Trump's proposed border wall, and border security generally. Check out some of the headlines the Pew poll generated:

"Poll Finds Most Americans Oppose Wall on U.S.-Mexico Border";

"Pew: 6-in-10 oppose Donald Trump's proposal to build border wall"; and

"Big majority in poll oppose Trump's proposed wall on U.S.-Mexico border".

Of course, those who took the poll weren't responding to Trump's proposed wall. They were asked to respond to a proposal of a wall across the entire southern border, something no candidate has proposed. The media narrative is misleading, but Pew should have expected this result and planned against it with better, or additional, questions. If truth was the goal, Pew would be calling on the media to correct the headlines. If accurate reporting was the goal, the media wouldn't be writing these headlines in the first place.

A more accurate headline would be: "Americans Don't Support a Wall Across the Entire Southern Border and Still May Support Trump's 1,000-Mile Wall, but We Just Don't Know Because Pew Didn't Ask".

The border wall issue is something I had to address last week when PolitiFact called our office to determine the truthfulness of Trump's statement that "Hillary Clinton wanted a wall, a number of years ago. She wanted a wall." As I explained to PolitiFact, it is true that Clinton voted for the Secure Fence Act in 2006 and that it would have mandated 700 miles of double border fencing that was required, under the terms of the law, to stop "all unlawful entries into the United States". (The wall was never fully constructed since the law was amended not long after passage.)

As I detailed in a recent blog post, PolitiFact decided that Trump's statement was only "half true" because PolitiFact felt that Trump was equating his wall proposal with Clinton's past support for 700 miles of fencing. They argued that 2,000 miles is much more than 700 miles. I explained to PolitiFact that they shouldn't do a mileage comparison since Trump hasn't proposed a wall across the entire 2,000-mile border with Mexico, and in fact has proposed only 1,000 miles. That little fact never made it into the article even though it would necessarily have changed the analysis.

The point is that there are too many reporters who are too lazy to do their homework and too quick to jump on a narrative that promotes their worldview.

Had they any care for the truth, the writers of these articles would have asked Pew why they polled on the concept of a border wall that crosses the entire border instead of polling on a 1,000-mile or 700-mile fence. (I sent a tweet to the author on this point and will update if he responds.)

If Pew were a little more honest, they would ask the poll a few different ways. The might result might have been different had Pew asked: "Do you support additional fencing or walling along the U.S.-Mexico border that is longer than what is currently there?"

And the results would likely be very different if Pew had asked: "Clinton voted for 700 miles of additional fencing along the border in 2006 and Trump is proposing 1,000 additional miles along the border; do you think additional fencing or a wall would be helpful in deterring illegal immigration?"

In fact, buried deep within Pew's full report, Pew notes a CNN poll from 2006 that asked respondents whether they support "Building a fence along 700 miles of the border with Mexico". The results: 54 percent said "yes" and 44 percent said "no". Question wording matters. Pew also notes that CNN did a similar poll only months later and the results flipped (46 percent in favor, 48 percent opposed). It seems unlikely that suddenly there's massive opposition to improved border security, despite the headlines currently being pumped out of newsrooms.

Better, more detailed questions always provide a better picture of what Americans really think, but Pew decided to ask about something that doesn't exist in any proposal in this election cycle — a 2,000-mile-long border that covers the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

A different question in the Pew poll also suffers from a flaw that pops up in nearly every poll claiming to show public support for amnesty. In inquiring about how to handle illegal aliens, Pew gave respondents a choice that is supposed to indicate support for amnesty. It asks respondents if they support "creating a way for immigrants already here illegally to become citizens if they meet certain requirements."

As I've noted elsewhere, this nebulous "certain requirements" language is a favorite of amnesty advocates because it leaves it to the respondent to imagine any type of "requirement" that he needs to justify the idea of legalizing illegal aliens. It makes the response very attractive, which is the goal of push polls. Some respondents may think, "Yes, I'd support legalization, but only if one of those requirements is proving that the person has never fraudulently used an American citizen's Social Security number." Obviously, that would disqualify millions of illegal aliens.

Another respondent might think, "Yes, but only if one of those requirements is paying a fine of $100,000 to legalize." Neither of these "certain requirements" would ever happen in a comprehensive amnesty bill, but that's not important for pollsters trying to prove Americans love amnesty. A simple follow-up about the type of requirements people are imagining would be informative and might destroy the entire narrative; naturally, that's never asked.

The point is that even though these results are being sold as indicating public support for amnesty, in actuality the poll may indicate something quite different.

If mass legalization were so popular it would have happened under President Bush. Or under President Obama. But it was rejected twice despite a whopping $1.5 billion being spent by lobbyists between 2008 and 2012. Any lobbyist confused about why amnesty hasn't happened should stop reading flawed push polls.

UPDATE: After tweeting some reporters to alert them to the fact that their articles are misreading the Pew study, one reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer blocked me on Twitter. The reporter responded not to my tweet, but to a random person on Twitter who had responded to my original tweet. While the response from the reporter illustrates his open-border perspective, my friend Andrew Good at NumbersUSA refocused the reporter, noting that the original point has not yet been addressed. It remains unaddressed.