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Support for Immigration Has Never Been Stronger, and Yet Many Support a Temporary Pause in Immigration. What’s Up With That?

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Americans want to do everything possible to contain the virus, including temporary restrictions on travel and immigration, but their underlying support for immigrants and immigration is stronger than ever


The beginning of the NPR headline regarding its new poll was surprising: “Americans Back Trump On Immigration.” Then comes the kicker: “But Only To Stop COVID-19, Poll Finds.”

Right-wing media like Breitbart are trumpeting the spate of polls that find a majority of Americans support temporary restrictions on legal immigration, and the nativist movement in America has used these polls to encourage the Trump administration to close our border and end most legal immigration. With Stephen Miller calling the shots, they didn’t have to push that hard.

What the xenophobes leave out is the context. We are in the midst of a once-in-a-century public health crisis. Over 200 countries around the world have restricted travel and immigration as part of a comprehensive approach to reduce the spread of the deadly coronavirus. In America, we don’t have a comprehensive approach, but we do have the travel and immigration restrictions in place.

Recent polls show that support for immigration generally, support for increased levels of immigration, and support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including Dreamers, has never been higher. So, how do we square these seemingly different responses?

“Americans do want to take steps to limit immigration right now,” said [NPR/Ipsos] pollster Mallory Newall. “But that’s not because their views on immigration have changed. It’s because they want to do everything in their power to contain the spread of COVID-19.”

Here are how respondents who were called for followup interviews by NPR story framed it. A Republican said, “I feel like we need to take care of America first. We should be staying at home, and I think other countries should not be coming in until we have the coronavirus especially under control.” An independent said, “Right now is not a very good time to be immigrating,” adding “there’s a lot of undocumented here that should be documented before we start adding to the immigration.” A Democrat said, “I get right now that we got this pandemic going on, that’s fine. But once this calms down, if somebody really wants to come over here and raise their family and be a citizen, let them do that.”

Here is evidence that support for immigration has never been stronger, even despite the attraction of some voters for a temporary reduction in legal immigration, both since the beginning of the Trump presidency and since the beginning of this year.

  • Gallup just reported the highest levels of support for increases in legal immigration ever:  On July 1, Gallup reported that “Nearly 8 in ten (77%) Americans think immigration is a good thing for their country…Thirty-four percent of Americans, up from 27% a year ago, would prefer to see immigration to the U.S. increased. This is the highest support for expanding immigration Gallup has found in its trend since 1965. Meanwhile, the percentage favoring decreased immigration has fallen to a new low of 28%, while 36% think it should stay at the present level. This marks the first time in Gallup’s trend that the percentage wanting increased immigration has exceeded the percentage who want decreased immigration.” They added, “Trump may not be as concerned with getting majority support for his policies as he is in using the issue to energize his political base. Trump’s policies and rhetoric on the issue are likely accomplishing that goal but may also be serving to make people outside his base more positive toward immigration.”
  • July polling from CAP Action/Hart Research shows voters support pro-immigrant and pro-immigration policies: “Americans recognize the important contributions that immigrants are making to combat the pandemic, and—by large margins—support granting legal status and a pathway to citizenship for essential workers in the fight against COVID-19.” In addition, Hart Research writes, “This poll reveals a substantially improved environment since April, with support for immigration and immigrants largely back to pre-pandemic levels. Americans increasingly recognize immigrants’ contributions during the current crisis.”
  • June polling by GSG for America’s Voice, the Immigration Hub and FWD.us, found the following results:
    • 82% support/13% oppose:  “Providing a path to earn citizenship for undocumented immigrants who have been long-standing members of the community, have paid taxes, and passed a background check.”
    • 74% support/15% oppose: “Ensuring that essential workers during the pandemic, like health care workers and farm workers, are able to earn citizenship.”
    • 73% support/17% oppose: “Ending the policy of separating families from their children at the border.”

The bottom line: America wants to be safe from the threat of the pandemic, is willing to entertain extraordinary measures to get through this, and supports immigrants and pro-immigration policy stronger than ever. This is a temporary pause in light of the public health crisis, not a shift in views on immigration.