Donald Trump's surge in the polls owes much to his willingness to talk about immigration. By focusing on issues such as border enforcement and immigrant crime, he has tapped into the public's unmet desire for a candidate who is genuinely skeptical about mass immigration.
That desire is reflected in polling data that show Americans generally prefer less immigration over more immigration. Here is a sample of polls that ask about immigration as a broad issue, from the aggregator site PollingReport.com:
|"In your view, should immigration be kept at its present level, increased or decreased?"|
|(four polls, trend toward decrease)|
|Pew Research Center|
|"Should LEGAL immigration into the United States be kept at its present level, increased or decreased?"|
|(two polls, trend toward increase)|
|CBS News/New York Times Poll|
|"Should LEGAL immigration into the United States be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased?"|
|(three polls, trend toward increase)|
|Fox News Poll|
|"Do you think the United States should increase or decrease the number of LEGAL immigrants allowed to move to this country?"|
|(three polls, no clear trend)|
Each of the four questions above has been asked multiple times over the years. To provide a clearer picture, we have averaged the results across time and indicated which direction the results seem to be trending. The data shows that Americans choose less immigration over more immigration, with many also preferring no change. Two polls show a possible trend toward increasing immigration, but the other two either trend toward a decrease or show no trend at all. The bottom line is that the desire to reduce immigration is not just mainstream, but the preferred policy of most Americans. The huge share of the public has arrived at this position despite there being very few prominent politicians or opinion leaders making the case for reduced immigration.
The failure of virtually any national leaders or members of the media to call for a reduction in immigration is striking. Despite a historically deep pool of Republican presidential contenders, Rick Santorum is the only candidate we know of who has clearly stated his preference for less legal immigration. Even Trump himself has been cagey about what level of immigration he would like to see. As for Republicans in Congress, most oppose amnesty, but they have done little more than play defense. When a group of around 100 House conservatives were asked "Who wants less immigration?" a couple of years ago, only one — Rep. Steve King of Iowa — was reported to have raised his hand.
Because the views on immigration held by ordinary Americans are almost entirely unrepresented in elite circles, the public discussion ends up being badly skewed. Politicians and talking heads debate not whether immigration should be reduced, but by how much it should be increased. The press frequently refers to Republicans who supported the Schumer-Rubio amnesty bill and its expansion of legal immigration as "moderates", even though that bill would have roughly doubled the level of legal immigration in the future, something favored by few Americans. (See p. 14 and Table 2 in the CBO report for how the bill would have increased immigration.) Sen. Schumer even called Rep. King "a far-right, way of out of the mainstream outlier" for the preferred position of many if not most Americans.
It is also not unusual to see calls in the media for complete open borders — an opinion that certainly is out of the mainstream. The Wall Street Journal has editorialized in favor of a constitutional amendment that reads, "There shall be open borders." Dylan Mathews has advocated open borders in both the Washington Post and Vox. Even the open-borders economist Bryan Caplan has acknowledged the bias: "The mainstream media is very sweet to me ... I have to admit, it's bizarre."
It seems almost certain that if a competitive candidate were to call for a reduction in immigration so as to benefit American workers and taxpayers and to facilitate the assimilation of immigrants he or she would tap into an enormous pool of public dissatisfaction with the current high level of immigration. Even a candidate as careless and with the baggage of Donald Trump has been able to rise to the top of the polls using this issue. Imagine what a more serious and careful candidate could do.