January 6, 2017

Less than half the public views border wall as an important goal for U.S. immigration policy

As President-elect Donald Trump prepares to take office, the public views one of his signature campaign promises – the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border – as a less important goal for immigration policy than several other objectives, such as cracking down on visa overstays.

Asked about eight possible goals for U.S. immigration policy, majorities rate each one as important, except one: Only 39% view building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border as a very or somewhat important goal.

Most Americans (58%) say it is important to increase the number of deportations of people in the U.S. illegally, another of Trump’s campaign proposals that he has emphasized since winning the election. The latest Pew Research Center estimate puts the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. at 11.1 million.

The most widely supported goal for U.S. immigration policy is to establish stricter policies to prevent people from overstaying visas. Nearly eight-in-ten (77%) view this as an important goal, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted Nov. 29-Dec. 12 among 4,138 adults on the nationally representative American Trends Panel.

In fiscal year 2015, nearly 400,000 visitors to the U.S. overstayed their visas, according to a recent estimate by the Department of Homeland Security.

Among other immigration goals, 73% say it is important that those in the U.S. illegally do not get government benefits if they are not qualified to receive them, while 72% say it is important to allow people who came to the U.S. illegally as children to remain in the U.S. and apply for legal status.

In addition, about six-in-ten (62%) say it is very or somewhat important to establish a way for most people here illegally to stay legally, while 61% say the same about taking in civilian refugees from countries where people are trying to escape violence and war.

As deportations of undocumented immigrants have fallen in recent years, 58% say that increasing the number of deportations is an important goal for U.S. immigration policy. An identical majority (58%) says it is important to encourage more highly skilled people from around the world to live and work in the U.S.

There are partisan differences on each of these goals for U.S. immigration policy, but the widest by far is over building a southern border wall. Two-thirds of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (67%) say construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is an important goal for immigration policy, compared with just 16% of Democrats and Democratic leaners.

While most Republicans regard a U.S.-Mexican border wall as an important goal, larger shares of Republicans see other goals for immigration policy as important: 93% say it is very or somewhat important to prevent immigrants in the U.S. illegally from receiving government benefits they are not qualified for; 90% say it is important to establish stricter policies to prevent visa overstays; and 81% see increased deportations of those in the U.S. illegally as important.

Among Democrats, the most widely supported goals are allowing people who came to the U.S. illegally as children to remain and apply for legal status (82% say this is important); taking in refugees trying to escape violence (79%); and establishing a path to legal status for most immigrants in the U.S. illegally (76%).

Despite the wide partisan differences on many of these goals, four of the eight proposals are viewed as important by majorities in both parties. For example, while 90% of Republicans say it is important to devise policies to prevent visa overstays, so too do 67% of Democrats.

Note: See full topline results in a PDF, which was updated May 3 to include only questions related to this post.

Topics: Immigration, Unauthorized Immigration, U.S. Political Parties, Domestic Affairs and Policy, Immigration Attitudes, Political Attitudes and Values, U.S. Political Figures, Mexico, Political Polarization, 2016 Election, Donald Trump

  1. Photo of Rob Suls

    is a research associate focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous6 months ago

    Larry Lauke – when is it ever legal for someone who is here illegally to be qualified to receive government benefits?

  2. Anonymous7 months ago

    I didn’t trust the presidential election polls and unlike most of the paid for and bought national polls I predicted a Hillary – Trump tossup. I learned about professionalism in polling in the pathetic 1980 Carter – Reagan poll. Why should I trust this one?

    1. Susan Johnson7 months ago

      Pew Research is among the top tier centrist, non-partisan polling organizations and think tanks. Their polls are not paid for and bought off by any of the political parties. Perhaps you reject the polling results and facts reported here because they don’t square with your own private opinion.

      1. John Doe6 months ago

        If you honestly believe there is no agenda (despite 95% of Washington voting democratic—and I assure you, those other 5% aren’t coming from a D.C. think-tank with a “Hispanic” branch), you’ve been misled.

        Last year, headlines blared with the results of their March report showing that Americans did not believe immigrants take jobs from Americans. If you go to the methodology page on that study, you will see that they conducted their landline interviews by asking for the youngest member of the household over 18. Why do you think they did that? See for yourself on the last page: people-press.org/2016/03/31/camp….

        Another one that captured even more headlines was the one in August that said most Americans oppose a border wall. A legal policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies explained why this was so misleading (cis.org/feere/media-misleads-pew…):

        “Immigration polls are not designed to get at what Americans really think about immigration, but instead are written to create a certain narrative. Many polls are financed by activist groups who simply want to create the appearance of widespread public support for amnesty. The advocates have two main goals: (1) provide lobbyists with polling data that they can use to browbeat politicians into supporting their cheap-labor, open-border agenda; and (2) encourage the media to write headlines that don’t really reflect the findings, but nevertheless advance the notion that Americans love open borders.

        The Pew Research Center has done just that with a new poll. The poll contains a few different questions, but the one getting all the press asks Americans about building a border wall.

        Specifically, Pew asks: “All in all, would you favor or oppose building a wall along the entire border with Mexico?” According to Pew, 61 percent of Americans oppose building a wall along the entire border with Mexico.

        A reporter happened to bring this poll to my attention hours before it got into the news cycle, and I noted that it’s not that informative of a question because of the weasel word “entire”. I explained that even presidential candidate Donald Trump isn’t proposing building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. In other words, I noted that even though I’m in favor of a border fence because it would help deter some illegal immigration and drug trafficking, I would have responded “no” to that question due to the fact that there are locations along the border with geography that serves as a natural barrier.

        I also told the reporter that I bet most reporters would not mention the word “entire” when reporting the results.

        Sure enough, I was right. And, as is predictable, the media is taking it a step further by using their mischaracterization of the poll to discredit Trump’s proposed border wall, and border security generally. Check out some of the headlines the Pew poll generated:

        “Poll Finds Most Americans Oppose Wall on U.S.-Mexico Border”;
        “Pew: 6-in-10 oppose Donald Trump’s proposal to build border wall”; and
        “Big majority in poll oppose Trump’s proposed wall on U.S.-Mexico border”.

        Of course, those who took the poll weren’t responding to Trump’s proposed wall. They were asked to respond to a proposal of a wall across the entire southern border, something no candidate has proposed. The media narrative is misleading, but Pew should have expected this result and planned against it with better, or additional, questions. If truth was the goal, Pew would be calling on the media to correct the headlines. If accurate reporting was the goal, the media wouldn’t be writing these headlines in the first place.”