Opinion | Trump polls well on immigration, but his policies don’t

Americans overwhelmingly trust Donald Trump more than President Biden on immigration, polls show. This might be unsurprising, since the southern border is overwhelmed and Trump has made immigration the centerpiece of all his presidential campaigns.

But it’s also kind of astonishing. Most of what Trump actually plans to do about immigration in a second term is unpopular.

Myths and misinformation about immigrants (whether legal or undocumented) abound, including whether they’re more likely to commit crimes (they’re not). Or whether immigrants hurt the economy (they don’t; they are net-positive contributors to the economy and federal budgets). Such misunderstandings are one reason I write about immigration: If Americans had better information, they might be more likely to see immigration’s benefits for America’s finances, national security and moral standing in the world.

But even I recognize that’s a tall order. Voters are busy; learning the ins and outs of the immigration system requires bandwidth most people lack. You know what should be an easier lift for those of us in the media, though? Simply telling Americans what Trump’s immigration policies are, and then asking them to evaluate whether those policies match the views Americans already hold.

We already have a good sense of Trump’s likely immigration agenda from recent speeches, previous administration actions and Project 2025 documents (co-written by Trump aides and widely viewed as the policy playbook for a second Trump term). On lots of major policies, polling is not in his favor. For example:

1. Terminating legal status for so-called dreamers.

Polling shows that most Americans — even most Republicans and Trump supporters! — believe undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children should be allowed to remain here and apply for permanent legal status.

Trump has sometimes said that he has a “great heart” for these particular immigrants, nicknamed “dreamers.” But always pay more attention to what politicians do than to what they say.

As president, Trump repeatedly tried to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which temporarily shields dreamers from deportation and allows them to work. His efforts were stopped by the Supreme Court — before his final high-court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, was confirmed. DACA is expected to return to the Supreme Court soon.

In the meantime, Trump in a second term would effectively end the program administratively, by prohibiting government employees from reviewing and processing renewal applications, according to Project 2025.

The Trump administration program systematically took asylum-seeking children from their parents, with no tracking process that would allow them to be reunited. The policy was widely condemned, even by members of his own party.

In fact, it was historically unpopular, faring worse in polls than any major bill of the past 30 years, as George Washington University professor Chris Warshaw has shown.

Even today, our country has not made all these families whole, and the moral stain remains. Nonetheless, Trump has recently defended the policy and refuses to rule out reviving it.

3. Militarized mass-detention camps.

Trump wants to deploy the military to round up migrants and place them in detention camps and has publicly pledged to use the Alien Enemies Act for this purpose. This wartime measure, part of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, was previously invoked for mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans and Japanese nationals during World War II.

One recent survey addressed a version of this policy (Agree/disagree: “Illegal immigrants should be arrested and put in detention camps while awaiting deportation hearings”). Respondents were divided, with neither “agree” nor “disagree” claiming a majority. This question wording left out some important details of the design, so perhaps more specific language would be useful in assessing levels of support (or moral revulsion).

4. Slashing legal immigration.

Many Americans, including Trump’s own followers, say they have no problem with immigrants per se — just those who come here unlawfully. Indeed, Americans generally have positive views of “legal immigrants,” and most favor making it easier to immigrate (73 percent overall, including 59 percent among Republicans, according to a Fox News poll). A recent Pew Research Center poll likewise found most Americans believe that creating more opportunities to legally immigrate would improve the border situation.

Yet as president, Trump did much more to slash legal immigration than illegal immigration. He built his border wall out of paperwork, blocking would-be immigrants from receiving visas and legal work permits. Further, the Project 2025 framework lays out additional ways he would restrict legal immigration. For example, he would dismantle the program that allows seasonal agricultural workers to come here on visas.

One might reasonably ask how Biden’s policies compare, since the public clearly dislikes how things are going now. It’s worth noting that Biden has indeed created new legal pathways for immigrants to arrive here with permission, after a security and health screening. (Republican politicians sued to block his efforts.) And whatever the narrative about Biden’s supposed “open borders,” in fiscal 2022, the number of noncitizen removals, returns and expulsions hit its highest level in two decades.

As for what’s left on Biden’s immigration agenda? Well, most items on his to-do list (such as revamping the asylum system) require action from Congress. Once upon a time, Trump wanted Congress to pass tough border legislation, too — until he decided he opposed it instead.

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