Of all the issues that fed Donald Trump’s unlikely conquest of the Republican Party in 2016, immigration and closely associated feelings of xenophobia were arguably the most important. Yes, a lot of rank-and-file Republicans, especially in the increasingly dominant category of white non-college educated voters, were by then disgruntled with the “globalist” trade policies and “forever wars” associated with their party’s presidential and congressional leaders, along with their constant efforts to undermine wildly popular federal retirement programs. Trump feasted on all of that alienation. But before his arrival as a politician, there was an even stronger grassroots revolt against the liberalized immigration policies associated with George W. Bush and 2008 presidential nominee John McCain. The ugly racist underside of anti-immigrant sentiment was illustrated by the “birther” conspiracy theory that was Trump’s ticket to credibility as a potential presidential candidate, with its suggestion that swarthy lawbreakers entering the United States had a champion in a swarthy interloper in the White House.
Eight years later, Trump is engaged in a comeback effort, and this time around he no longer has to persuade Republicans to oppose anything like liberalized immigration and asylum policies. His rivals for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination all rant about the “border crisis” just like he does. The big question now is whether anti-immigrant sentiment has now spread throughout the electorate to the point where harsh nativist rhetoric will become a big asset for Trump (or whoever Republicans nominate) against Joe Biden, whose party is divided and on the defensive on the subject.
That could definitely be the case. Gallup reports that “Americans’ satisfaction with the level of immigration into the U.S. has fallen six percentage points over the past year, from 34 percent in January 2022 to 28 percent today. This is the lowest reading in a decade.” Fully 40 percent of Americans want to see lower levels of immigration, the highest number since the days immediately after 9/11. The trend is evident in all party affiliation groups:
The percentage of Republicans dissatisfied with immigration levels for being too high jumped from 40 percent in 2021 to 69 percent in 2022 and remains about the same today, at 71 percent. The percentage of Democrats dissatisfied and desiring less immigration was nearly nonexistent in 2021, at 2 percent, before rising to 11 percent last year and 19 percent now. Independents’ dissatisfaction and preference for less immigration has about doubled since 2021, rising from 19 percent at that time to 36 percent today.
This trend is likely to intensify if the expiration of COVID-related policies enabling quick deportation of migrants ultimately spurs a new influx of border crossings, as most observers expect, right as the 2024 election cycle begins.
What has happened, of course, is that the immigration debate in Americans has evolved from being mostly about how to deal with undocumented Americans already living and working in the U.S. (and with the especially worthy sub-category of “Dreamers” brought into the country as children) to a headline-driven “crisis” over the influx of potential immigrants — mostly those seeking refugee status — across the southern border. Even Americans who are sympathetic to migrants are likely to feel concern over the apparent disorder in processing immigration claims, with the subsequent “release” of many awaiting adjudication into border regions of the U.S. And the decline in the number of unaccompanied minors and even of families entering the country during the most recent wave of refugee applications may reduce sympathy for migrants even more.
More to the point politically, this is becoming an issue in which Republicans are energized and united while Democrats are wondering if the Biden administration knows what it is doing, or simply wants to change the debate to focus on more congenial topics. A good sign of the political challenge to Democrats is that they have been gradually losing their share of Latino voters (according to exit polls, it has dropped from 71 percent in 2012 to 60 percent in 2022) even as the opposition has become more openly nativist.
It would obviously help Democrats if Biden can get a better handle on the border situation while drawing renewed attention to the need for comprehensive immigration reform. But for the moment, Trump’s demagoguery on the subject is getting less pushback than ever from Republican elites, and in 2024 immigration may no longer be a fringe “base mobilization” issue mostly drawing cheers at MAGA rallies. It could become a wedge issue with swing voter appeal, making Trump’s original sin a political virtue.