The FINANCIAL -- Fifty-nine percent of Americans say they worry "a great deal" or "a fair amount" about illegal immigration. This level of concern is typical of what Gallup has measured over the past 17 years, apart from a window between 2006 and 2011 when roughly two-thirds of Americans expressed worry.
Each March, as part of its annual Environment poll, Gallup asks Americans how much they worry about a series of problems facing the U.S. Illegal immigration typically has ranked in the lower half of that list, even when concern about the issue was 70% or greater in 2006 and 2008.
Illegal immigration to the U.S. increased significantly between 2000 and 2005, and news media and government leaders paid increasing attention to the issue. In 2007, a bipartisan bill on immigration stalled in the U.S. Senate. After that, concern about illegal immigration receded as the nation turned its attention to economic problems during and after the recession. Also, illegal immigration to the U.S. has in recent years declined to the lowest level in decades. Still, it remains a key political issue and was a major focus of Donald Trump's presidential campaign and his early policy moves as president, according to Gallup.
The declining recent concern has brought the level of public concern back to where it was before 2006. From 2001 through 2005, an average of 58% of Americans worried a great deal or a fair amount about illegal immigration; since 2012, it has been 59%. Between 2006 and 2011, an average of 68% of Americans were worried about the problem.
Republican Concern Stays High, Other Groups Less Concerned
Before 2006, Republicans, Democrats and independents expressed similar concern about illegal immigration. Republicans' concern then surged 20 percentage points between 2006 and 2011, compared with a 12-point increase for independents and a four-point uptick for Democrats.
Since then, Republicans' worry has remained elevated, while Democrats' and independents' worry has fallen significantly, with fewer Democrats worried now than in the early 2000s. Those changes have resulted in the Republican-Democratic gap growing from a narrow two points at the beginning of the 21st century to an average 31 points in recent years.
Like climate change, the issue of illegal immigration has become more politicized in recent years. Each party's leaders and supporters take increasingly distinct positions on how urgent the problem is, as well as what actions are necessary to address it.
Republicans tend to prioritize taking government actions to secure the borders over developing a plan to deal with immigrants illegally in the U.S. In a July 2016 Gallup poll, a majority of Republicans favored building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and half favored deporting all immigrants living in the U.S. illegally back to their home country, something Democrats overwhelmingly opposed. In that same poll, however, Republicans as well as Democrats favored a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
More Hispanics Than Whites, Blacks Worry About Illegal Immigration
Over the past six years, an average of 67% of Hispanics have said they worry a great deal or fair amount about illegal immigration. That is higher than worry among non-Hispanic whites (59%) and blacks (57%).
There were slightly smaller differences by racial and ethnic group between 2001 and 2005. From 2006 through 2011, all groups showed increases in worry, with the largest increase among whites. In recent years, whites' and blacks' worry has subsided, while Hispanics' worry is unchanged.
Hispanics' slightly greater concern about illegal immigration does not appear to be motivated by politics because Hispanics are a Democratic-leaning group politically. Whereas Republicans' heightened concern with illegal immigration appears to focus on limiting it, Hispanics' greater concern may reflect worries about the treatment of immigrants who are illegally in the U.S.
Hispanics have shown higher support for policies to aid immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, including President Barack Obama's 2014 executive orders. Gallup has also found much higher levels of reported discrimination among non-U.S.-born Hispanics than among native-born Hispanics. Hispanics may be growing more concerned in reaction to the increased focus on dealing with immigrants in the country illegally, which could affect themselves, their family members or their neighbors.
Immigration was a major issue in the 2016 presidential campaign, largely because of Trump's strong positions and strident language on the subject. The issue concerns Republicans more than Democrats and independents, and this lack of consensus causes it to rank behind many other issues when Americans rate their level of worry about it. At the same time, illegal immigration often ranks near the top of the list in open-ended questions about issue importance, such as Gallup's most important problem question, suggesting it is a highly salient issue to a more limited segment of the population.
Immigration will continue to receive great attention in the coming years as Trump attempts to address what was one of his signature campaign issues. His predecessors were unable to pass meaningful immigration reform legislation despite their concerted efforts to do so. Trump has focused his policy efforts on limiting immigration more broadly, including by building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and restricting access to the U.S. for those traveling from certain Muslim-majority countries. Those policies have proven to be controversial and opposed by a majority of Americans, but supported by most Republicans. Trump's odds of passing immigration legislation may be improved by working with a Republican-majority Congress, assuming his policies can survive legal challenges or possible filibuster attempts by Senate Democrats.