Immigration rises to top of voters' minds ahead of Super Tuesday, polls find

Asylum-seeking migrants wrap themselves in blankets to ward off the wind and rain as they line up in a makeshift, mountainous campsite to be processed after crossing the border with Mexico, Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, near Jacumba Hot Springs, Calif. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Migrants wrap themselves in blankets to ward off the wind and rain as they line up in a makeshift campsite to be processed after crossing the border near Jacumba Hot Springs, Calif. (Gregory Bull / Associated Press)
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As President Biden and former President Trump head to the U.S.-Mexico border this week ahead of the Super Tuesday primaries, new polling finds that an increasing number of Americans view illegal immigration as a "very serious" problem, and a majority support building a border wall.

Republican candidates who want to frame the Biden administration as weak on immigration have repeatedly hammered it as a top issue on the 2024 election campaign trail. Biden is intent on laying the blame for inaction at the border on his opponent, who helped sink the largest immigration package in Congress in years.

A Monmouth University poll released Monday shows that the competing messaging is sticking — with 8 in 10 Americans across partisan lines seeing illegal immigration as at least a somewhat serious problem. Sixty-one percent of all respondents say it’s a very serious problem, up from fewer than 50% in 2015 and 2019. Among Republicans, 91% see illegal immigration as a very serious issue, compared with 58% of independents and 41% of Democrats.

“This is not the first year that we see this, but this is a moment where this is gaining momentum,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor of policy and government at George Mason University who studies immigration. “The elections of 2024 are driving this, and the images are supporting a narrative — the politics of fear.”

Read more: Biden and Trump plan to make dueling trips to the U.S.-Mexico border

A Gallup poll, released Tuesday, reported that a rising share of Americans think immigration is the most important problem facing the country, surpassing the government, the economy, inflation and other social issues. Twenty-eight percent of respondents said immigration is the most important problem, up from 20% in January.

“It's kind of unusual to have an issue like this be the top, because normally it's something like the economy or government. Or, you know, after 9/11 it was terrorism. In 2020, it was COVID. Usually it’s a dominant issue like that,” Gallup Senior Editor Jeff Jones said. “So for something like immigration to beat out those issues is pretty notable.”

Every month for more than 20 years, Gallup has asked respondents about the most important issue facing the country. The last time respondents chose immigration was in July 2019, when there was a rise in attempted border crossings, according to the pollster.

The Gallup poll interviewed a random sample of 1,016 adults from across the country. The telephone survey, which took place over 20 days this month, has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, according to Gallup.

Twenty-eight percent of respondents to the Monmouth poll reported feeling that illegal immigrants take jobs away from American citizens, while 62% say that migrants fill jobs that Americans do not want. Those numbers have stayed relatively steady, said Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University polling.

“When we started talking about this much more as an issue during the Obama administration ... it was the argument about them taking away jobs that was leading the debate,” he said. “Now the terms of debate are really just talking about crime and chaos in society, and the contribution of illegal immigrants to that.”

Read more: Migrant arrests are up along the border in California and dropping in Texas. Why?

One of the cornerstones of the MAGA movement, Correa-Cabrera said, is a perception that immigrants bring violence, drugs and insecurity into the United States. Part of the reason, she said, is because many immigrants come to the U.S. to escape violence in their home countries.

Still, research has repeatedly debunked the idea that immigrants are more prone to commit violent crime than U.S. citizens.

A 2020 study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that immigrants in the country without authorization committed crimes in Texas at far lower rates than U.S.-born citizens. Even so, the Monmouth University poll found that 1 in 3 respondents think illegal immigrants are more likely to commit violent crimes than other Americans.

“The argument is more about this sense of fear and this urgency of our way of life being … attacked,” Murray said. “And having that as a specter out there is a very powerful motivator for the Trump wing, particularly, of the Republican Party.”

Fifty-three percent of respondents to the Monmouth poll support building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, up from 48% when the university first asked the question in 2015, amid the heat of Trump’s campaigning for president on the issue. Support for the wall dropped during his presidency, Monmouth polling found, to a low of 35%.

“When we had quite literally a concrete example of what that wall actually meant, and what it was going to look like and what it was going to do, it started not having a lot of support,” Murray said. “This is a big flip from that point."

The Monmouth poll sampled 902 adults via telephone over four days this month. It has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, according to the university.

Mike Madrid, a GOP consultant and critic of Trump, said Democrats nationwide have underestimated how important immigration is to the American electorate. He pointed back to Proposition 187 — the now-repealed California law from the 1990s that denied education, social and health programs for immigrants in the country without authorization.

"I think the rest of the country is now ... going through what we were going through in California 30 years ago, this demographic transformation," Madrid said. "The strength of this issue is far, far bigger and much more potent than people realize. ... That's what the battlefield is going to be for this campaign."

Both the president and former president are planning trips to the border in Texas on Thursday to highlight their dueling approaches to immigration, just days before voters in 16 states head to the polls to vote in the primary.

Trump is planning a stop in Eagle Pass, one of frequent trips to the border to bolster his campaign. Biden will meet with border agents and discuss the need for new legislation in Brownsville, the Associated Press reported.

The president is considering taking executive actions on immigration, after a bipartisan bill failed in Congress earlier this month.

The $118-billion package, which would have tightened and streamlined the asylum-seeking process, was one of the most conservative and comprehensive immigration measures before lawmakers in years.

Some Democrats, including California’s Sen. Alex Padilla, rebuffed the bill as caving to Republican interests. However, after Trump excoriated the bill as not going far enough to curb illegal immigration, Republicans in Congress ultimately killed it.

The Monmouth poll found that just under half of the public had heard a lot about negotiations on the bill, and yet nearly half of respondents said both parties were equally responsible for blocking the bill.

“It's pretty hard to look at what happened and not place the objective blame on the Republicans," Murray said. "Whether you agree with the decision to block it or not, the Republicans in Congress were the ones who blocked this. And yet that doesn't come through in the public's perception of what happened. And I think that that's kind of the key — is that the immigration issue is a significantly greater motivating factor when it's not being solved than when it is.”

While refusing to negotiate on the border bill, Republicans instead impeached Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas in a historic move, claiming the Biden administration official did not fulfill his duty to enforce the border.

"The real problems of the immigration system are not going to be addressed this year,” Correa-Cabrera said. “Unfortunately, you know, electoral politics is in the way to make the immigration system better and to fix it. It needs to be fixed. It’s a tragedy, what is happening in the United States.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.