When Republicans talk about immigration, they don’t just mean illegal immigration

Last spring, the governor of Texas. Greg Abbott caught the headlines for his plan to take migrants by bus to Washington, D.C. He said he was concerned there would be an influx of migrants crossing the state border into Mexico in light of the president’s decision. Biden to end a public health order from 2020 that authorizes federal officials to push back migrants at the border, including those seeking asylum.

Many, including the Biden administration, have attributed Abbott’s actions to a publicity stunt. After all, illegal immigration is something that has long motivated Republican voters, specially when a Democrat is in the White House. The fact, however, that so much attention is paid to illegal immigration does not see how the immigration policy debate in the United States is changing, namely, Republican politicians are increasingly blurring the lines between illegal and legal immigration and they target not only illegal immigration, but immigration as well.

Over the past two decades, support for increased legal immigration overall has steadily increased, although Democrats have primarily led that increase, as the graph below shows. Indeed, according to 2019 polls from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Republicans are not only less likely to support increasing legal immigration, they are also more likely to support reducing legal immigration. Nearly half of Republicans (47%) said legal immigration should be reduced, compared to only 16% of Democrats.

However, the distinction between legal immigration and illegal immigration is often not clear-cut. Consider that only a minority of unauthorized immigrants, 38 percent, entered the country without adequate documentation in 2016, according to research conducted by the Center for Migration Studies. Instead, the majority of unauthorized immigrants who entered the United States that year, 62%, delayed their temporary visas, meaning they initially arrived in the United States legally but continued to stay. illegally with expired paperwork. In addition, the Pew Research Center looked at the 2017 data from the Department of Homeland Security and found that nearly 90% of those who passed the visa period were neither from Mexico nor Central America.

However, this does not change the fact that much of the media attention remains focused on illegal immigration, especially in the context of the southern border. Republicans are also arguably even more concerned about illegal immigration than legal immigration. When Gallup asked Americans in March how personally concerned they were about illegal immigration, 68 percent of Republicans said “a lot,” 27 percentage points higher than the combined share of Americans who said they were very worried and 50 points more. more than the part of the Democrats who said the same.

And it is this overwhelming concern about illegal immigration, regardless of its accuracy, that helps explain why Republican politicians still give the subject so much oxygen in their campaign materials. They know that illegal immigration is a huge flashpoint for their constituents – at least, that’s something I’ve found in researching the platforms of various Republican primary candidates running for state and federal office. Yet, I also found that when you look at the actual immigration policies that Republican politicians have successfully adopted, efforts to curb legal immigration have been far more successful than policies aimed at curbing illegal immigration.

Take former President Donald Trump. Although illegal immigration was a central pillar of his campaign, especially in 2016, his administration proved far more adept at implementing policies that restricted legal immigration than illegal immigration. A week after he took office, he famously signed an executive order that initially restricted immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Additionally, during his four years in office, Trump also pursued a number of measures to eradicate the process for asylum seekers, from banning certain situations in which people could qualify for asylum to introducing new protocols that lengthened the asylum process. And later, the coronavirus pandemic sparked a series of travel restrictions by the Trump administration in early 2020 that contributed to an 18% decrease in the average number of monthly green cards and 28% of visas for non-immigrants than President Barack Obama’s second term. Meanwhile, Trump’s first election campaign promises to collect and expel all undocumented immigrants who have never succeeded and his infamous wall – at least as he imagined it – has yet to be built.

Trump’s policies may present obvious examples, but the former president is not alone in proposing policies that restrict legal immigration. Republicans in Congress have also begun to adopt legislation that curtails such pathways. For example, when Republicans controlled the Senate in 2019, Senator Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley and the then Senator. David Perdue reintroduced the RAISE Act, which proposed limiting family-based immigration policies as well as establishing a host of other ceilings. (An earlier version, which specifically outlined halving the number of green cards issued each year, had never been voted on in 2017, when Cotton and Perdue first proposed it.)

The bill also explicitly linked legal immigration to the economy with its focus on highly skilled immigrants, which it defined as immigrants who could help “improve the fiscal health of the United States” without jeopardizing jobs that they could otherwise be detained by American citizens or as “protecting or raising the wages of American workers”.

Mark Hugo Lopez, director of race and ethnicity research at Pew, told me that America’s immigrant population has changed significantly since the 1980s and 1990s, which, in turn, has influenced debates over the politics of immigration. Lopez said that for a long time immigration policy has focused on border security and illegal immigration but that “now it is also about employers, student visas. [and] attract certain workers into agriculture or technology “.

Although the three senators’ legislation had Trump’s backing, the bill was not approved. But in particular, the evidence suggests that at least some parts of the idea were popular with Republicans. For example, 42% of Republicans, including those who lean on the Republican, told Pew in a 2020 survey that immigrants living legally in the United States mostly do jobs that U.S. citizens would like to hire, which was 10 points more than the share of Americans in general who said the same.

JD Vance, Ohio GOP candidate in the US Senate, has embraced former President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric.

Eli Hiller / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Looking at the 2022 midterm and the 2024 presidential election, both legal and illegal immigration continue to be important Republican topics of discussion with a number of high-profile GOP figures, from Abbott to GOP Senate candidates such as JD Vance. and 2024 aspirants like former Vice President Mike Pence: doubling immigration in their campaign rhetoric and platforms. And it is once again a mess of messages, with legal and illegal immigration often used interchangeably and Mexico blamed for being the source of all illegal immigration.

For example, Vance, Trump’s supporter of the open seat in the Ohio Senate, hides all of his immigration policy – legal and illegal – under “Resolve the Southern Border Crisis” on his campaign website. He also leaned on a particularly inflammatory rhetoric, running on ad before the primary in which he asked voters: “Are you a racist? Do you hate Mexicans? “As a way of suggesting that the media are responsible for such perceptions, although in the same ad Vance said that immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border are the main culprits for the illegal drugs” that spill over. in the country”.

Meanwhile, Katie Britt, another Trump supporter who won the Republican nomination for the Alabama Senate race, splits legal and illegal immigration in her campaign materials, at least more than Vance, but often confuses the two. suggesting, for example, that all visa-related matters fall under legal immigration reform and treating Mexico as the main source of illegal immigration to the U.S. Furthermore, Britt is also calling for a reduction in legal immigration and blaming a major draft of 1965 immigration law that ended discriminatory practices, such as regional immigration preferences and quotas, as responsible for reducing Alabamians’ salaries. This is remarkable, because it marks a huge shift in the way GOP politicians have historically talked about legal immigration.

Pence, who has not-so-secret ambitions for 2024, has also talked about immigration in recent speeches. Notably, too, despite having had a difficult relationship with Trump since the end of their term, Pence recently said in a speech in Arizona that he supports the containment of family-based migration, or the legal framework that allows American citizens to sponsor visas. for extended family members – also advocating a crackdown on illegal immigration at the southern border. Other presidential aspirants who, like Pence, are not fully in Trump’s inner circle have also made immigration a part of their field, as the former governor of South Carolina. Nikki Haley. While those more exactly in Trump’s orbit, like the governor of Florida. Ron DeSantis, continues to lean on the rhetoric of illegal immigration.

As the Washington Post’s David Byler noted Wednesday, the way Republicans talk about immigration has changed dramatically since Trump, making it harder to distinguish the differences between legal and illegal immigration, which, in turn, has obscured nuances of immigration issues. As Lopez told me, the immigrant population in the United States is truly diverse, with many different components including legal immigration versus illegal immigration. “These large umbrellas are somehow useful for thinking in broad categories,” she said. “But there is so much diversity within each of them that they end up masking a lot of what is happening around immigration policy, as well as the experiences of people who come to the United States as immigrants walking one of these paths. “.