Is Biden Losing the Immigration Debate?

By Steven A. Camarota on February 28, 2021

National Review, February 28, 2021

Earlier this month, Politico ran a story about a growing number of congressional Democrats who are worried that their party's expansive approach to immigration may be unpopular with voters. Recent trends in polling data suggest that those Democrats are right to be concerned.

Rasmussen Reports has asked the same ten immigration questions every week since the middle of December 2019. The answers had been generally stable until late last year, when they began to shift markedly toward favoring more border enforcement, opposition to amnesty, and less legal immigration. It seems that Joe Biden's election, and the rhetoric and policies of his administration, are alienating a significant share of voters. It is also possible that a larger share of centrist voters no longer see the issue as inextricably connected to Donald Trump and his polarizing style. Whatever the reason, if Rasmussen is right, public sentiment is moving away from Biden and his party on immigration.

As a candidate, Biden committed his administration to reducing immigration enforcement, increasing legal immigration, and giving legal status to illegal immigrants. In pursuit of the first priority, he has already undertaken a number of executive actions, including revoking the Trump administration's efforts to punish sanctuary cities and reviving "catch and release" at the border. As for the second priority, on legal immigration, Biden has already announced a substantial increase in refugee resettlement.

Yet, executive actions can go only so far. The centerpiece of the administration's legislative efforts on immigration is the proposed U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which would give amnesty to all illegal immigrants, reduce immigration enforcement, and significantly increase legal immigration.

As with the administration's executive actions, it is hard to know the extent to which the public is aware of the bill's particulars. It is also hard to know how much the public is following the "Biden surge" unfolding at the border. But the trends in the Rasmussen poll suggest that at least some significant share of the public is paying attention and do not like what they see.

One of the questions Rasmussen has been asking for the last 61 weeks is whether the government is doing too little or too much to reduce illegal border crossings and visitor overstays. As Figure 1 indicates, responses to this question shifted almost immediately once Biden won. On November 3, 40 percent of the public thought we were not doing enough to control illegal immigration, but today 55 percent think so. Since neither the question's wording nor the method used to collect the survey has changed, it seems fair to conclude that a much larger share of the public now thinks we need to do more to stop illegal immigration.

Another interesting result from the Rasmussen poll is a large increase in the share who oppose "giving lifetime work permits to most of the estimated 12 million illegal residents" in the country (Figure 2). Why Rasmussen refers to "work permits" rather than "legal status" or "citizenship" is not clear. Nevertheless, the wording has remained constant since 2019, so the shift in responses likely reflects a real change in public sentiment.

In the poll released on February 18 of this year, 55 percent said they were strongly or somewhat opposed, compared with just 39 percent who supported the amnesty. Given that the question asks about "work permits," perhaps the results reflect public concern over COVID-related unemployment. But unemployment has been high since March of last year, and the unemployment rate is a good deal lower now than it was back then. So it is hard to believe that the public suddenly became more concerned about that issue in just the last two months.

When the details of the administration's amnesty bill leaked in January, the limited media coverage it received was generally positive. Nonetheless, some share of the public may have become aware of — and turned off by — the truly enormous scale of the administration's proposal.

Contained within the broader amnesty proposal is a version of the DREAM Act, which would give legal status and eventual citizenship to those who came to the country at younger ages. It has always been the most popular type of amnesty with the public. Every week in which Rasmussen asked the question, a majority of the public strongly or somewhat favored "giving lifetime work permits" to "illegal residents" who came as minors (Figure 3). However, since the start of this year, support for the DREAM amnesty has fallen precipitously, while opposition has risen. The 50 percent who now support the amnesty is still higher than the 43 percent who oppose it, but the current gap is much smaller than the 58–36 advantage right before Christmas.

This huge decline in support for the DREAM Act is perhaps the most difficult to explain because it is hard to find any stories in the mainstream media that mention the cost of the bill, even though CBO estimated the net fiscal impact in 2017 and again 2019 and both times found it would create a large net fiscal drain. Moreover, virtually every story on the "Dreamer" population portrays them in a very sympathetic light. Yet the public has become dramatically less inclined to give them legal status, perhaps because they increasingly sense that the Dreamers are being used as props to secure a much larger amnesty that covers all illegal immigrants.

There are other questions in the Rasmussen immigration series, some dealing with the number of legal immigrants who should be allowed into the country, and others asking about guest workers, chain migration, and immigration-induced population growth. While it is not the case for all of the questions, the results generally show that the public wishes to see more enforcement and greater limits.

Of course, no survey is definitive, and none flawlessly captures public attitudes about a complex topic such as immigration. The 2016 and 2020 elections were stark reminders that our ability to measure public sentiment with polling is far from perfect. But by asking the same ten question for more than a year, Rasmussen has captured a real trend in public opinion that single-shot polls cannot.

Keep Rasmussen's trend lines in mind as the amnesty debate heats up. We can expect an avalanche of single-shot polls that incorporate the administration's preferred language in their questions. These polls will ask about "earned legalization" for "workers" and "children" who must "learn English," "pay back taxes," and "pay a fine." The fact that the actual amnesty is in no way earned, and is not limited to workers or children, and most certainly does not require English, back taxes, or a fine, will make little difference to those who design polling questions. Given the favorable language and lack of any trend data, the administration and allied media will use these polls to claim that a majority of voters support amnesty. In reality, Biden is facing strong headwinds as he moves forward with his stated goal of radically expanding immigration.

Topics: Politics