July 4, 2018

Donald Trump’s Mainstream Immigration Policy

Amid all the raging political headlines and hyperventilating tweets of the Summer of Resistance, a searing ember of news stopped me in my tracks this week.

Perhaps no Trump policy has provoked more emotional reaction than the practice of separating illegal border crossers from the children they brought with them to the United States. There’s no need to recount the number of times critics have called the president a Nazi, or a fascist, or just plain cruel.

The administration has now stopped the separation policy. But it plans to continue prosecuting illegal border crossers and, when those crossers bring children illegally into the United States, will “detain families together during the pendency of immigration proceedings,” according to an administration court filing in California.

That, of course, will not satisfy the critics, and legal challenges are sure to follow. But if a new poll is correct, it appears the Trump administration, after an enormously damaging few weeks, has ended up squarely on the side of the majority of American voters.

The new survey is a Harvard-Harris Poll, by former Clinton pollster and strategist Mark Penn. It was conducted in late June with 1,448 registered voters.

On the issue of separations, Penn began with a threshold question: “Do you think that people who make it across our border illegally should be allowed to stay in the country or sent home?” Sixty-four percent said they should be sent home. Thirty-six percent said they should be allowed to stay.

Then Penn asked: “Do you think that parents with children who make it across our border illegally should be allowed to stay in the country or sent home?” The presence of children made little difference in the result: 61% said they should be sent home, while 39% said they should be allowed to stay.

The vast majority — 88% — opposed separating illegal immigrant families while they are in the U.S., and they blamed the Trump administration for the policy. On the other hand, 55% said illegal immigrant families should be held in custody “until a judge reviews their case” — essentially the new Trump family detention policy.

Put the numbers together, and a substantial majority said illegal border crossers, and the children they brought, should be returned to their home countries. To that end, 80% favored hiring more immigration judges “to process people in custody faster.”

“They [poll respondents] rejected family separation while narrowly favoring family detention,” Penn said in an email exchange. “Mostly they want people who cross the border illegally to be turned around and returned home efficiently.”

Penn’s polling found other results broadly favorable to the Trump approach to immigration.

For example, Penn asked, “Do you think we need stricter or looser enforcement of our immigration laws?” Seventy percent said stricter, while 30% said looser.

Penn asked whether respondents “support or oppose building a combination of physical and electronic barriers across the U.S.-Mexico border.” Sixty percent supported the barriers, while 40% did not. Sixty-one percent said current border security is inadequate.

Penn’s polling also found overwhelming opposition to sanctuary cities. He asked: “Should cities that arrest illegal immigrants for crimes be required to notify immigration authorities they are in custody or be prohibited from notifying immigration authorities?” Eight-four percent — a huge number — said that cities should be required to notify immigration authorities. Just 16% said cities should be prohibited from doing that.

Penn polled the newest progressive immigration proposal, the “Abolish ICE” campaign to disband U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed said ICE should not be abolished, while 31% said it should.

Finally, Penn found widespread support for the fundamental provisions of the immigration bills, based on Trump’s “four pillars,” that were recently rejected by the House of Representatives. “Would you favor or oppose a congressional deal that gives undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents work permits and a path to citizenship in exchange for increasing merit preference over preference for relatives, eliminating the diversity visa lottery, and funding barrier security on the U.S.-Mexico border?” Penn asked. Sixty-three percent supported the plan, while 37% opposed.

“Overall, Americans want to show compassion for those that are here, but want much tougher enforcement of immigration laws,” Penn said.

Reading Penn’s questions, and the respondents’ answers, it was hard not to think of the presidency of Bill Clinton, for whom Penn worked in the 1990s. Clinton’s relatively tough stance on illegal immigration reflected Democratic thinking of the time. Penn’s questions still do, at least in the way they are worded. “In these polls I try to be as detailed in the policy questions as I was polling for six years for President Clinton,” Penn said, “because public opinion in America is far more nuanced than people realize — small changes in policy make a big difference.”

But Bill Clinton left office in 2001, in the faraway pre-progressive days of the Democratic Party. Today, the party’s position on immigration has moved so far left that it is unrecognizable to some old-style Clinton Democrats. And if Penn’s findings are correct, most Americans are now closer to President Trump than present-day Democratic leaders.


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