When Republicans Talk About Immigration, They Don’t Just Mean Illegal Immigration

This past spring, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott captured headlines for his plan to bus migrants to Washington, D.C. He said he was concerned that there would be an influx of migrants crossing the state’s border with Mexico in light of President Biden’s decision to cease a public-health order from 2020 authorizing federal officials to turn away migrants at the border — even those seeking asylum.

Many, including the Biden administration, chalked up Abbott’s actions to a publicity stunt. After all, illegal immigration is something that has long motivated Republican voters, especially when a Democrat is in the White House. The fact, though, that so much attention is paid to illegal immigration misses how the debate on immigration policy is changing in the U.S. — namely, Republican politicians are increasingly blurring the lines between illegal and legal immigration and targeting not just illegal immigration, but legal immigration too.

Over the past two decades, support for increasing legal immigration has climbed steadily overall, although Democrats have primarily driven that uptick, as the chart below shows. In fact, per 2019 polling from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Republicans are not only less likely to support increasing legal immigration but also more likely to support reducing legal immigration. Almost half of Republicans (47 percent) said legal immigration should be decreased, compared with just 16 percent of Democrats. 

The distinction between legal immigration and illegal immigration is often not clear-cut, though. Consider that only a minority of unauthorized immigrants, 38 percent, entered the country without proper documentation in 2016, according to research conducted by the Center for Migration Studies. Instead, the majority of unauthorized immigrants who entered the U.S. that year, 62 percent, overstayed their temporary visas, meaning they initially arrived in the U.S. legally but proceeded to remain illegally with expired paperwork. Moreover, the Pew Research Center looked at 2017 data from the Department of Homeland Security and found that almost 90 percent of those who overstayed their visas were from neither Mexico nor Central America.

Regardless, this doesn’t change the fact that a lot of media attention remains focused on illegal immigration, especially in the context of the southern border. Republicans are also still probably more concerned over illegal immigration than over legal immigration. When Gallup asked Americans in March how personally worried they were about illegal immigration, 68 percent of Republicans said “a great deal” — 27 percentage points higher than the overall share of Americans who said they were worried a great deal and 50 points higher than the share of Democrats who said the same.

And it’s this overwhelming concern around illegal immigration — regardless of its accuracy — that helps explain why Republican politicians still give the topic so much oxygen in their campaign materials. They know illegal immigration is a huge flash point for their voters — at the very least, this is something I’ve found in researching the platforms of various Republican primary candidates running for state and federal office. And yet, I’ve also found that when you look at the actual immigration policies Republican politicians have successfully enacted, efforts to curb legal immigration have been much more successful than policies meant to restrict illegal immigration.

Take former President Donald Trump. While illegal immigration was a central pillar of his campaign, especially in 2016, his administration proved much more adept at implementing policies that limited legal immigration than illegal immigration. A week after he took office, he notoriously signed an executive order that initially limited immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. Moreover, throughout his four years in office, Trump also pursued a number of measures to uproot the process for asylum seekers, from banning certain situations in which people were eligible for asylum to introducing new protocols that made the asylum process longer. And later, the coronavirus pandemic unleashed a series of travel restrictions from the Trump administration in early 2020 that contributed to an 18 percent decrease in the average number of monthly green cards and a 28 percent decrease in non-immigrant visas compared with President Barack Obama’s second term. Meanwhile, Trump’s early campaign promises to collect and deport all undocumented immigrants never panned out, and his infamous wall — at least how he envisioned it — has yet to be built.

Trump’s policies may present obvious examples, but the former president is not the only one proposing policies that limit legal immigration. Republicans in Congress have also started to take up legislation that whittles down such pathways. For instance, when Republicans controlled the Senate in 2019, Sens. Tom Cotton and Josh Hawley and then-Sen. David Perdue reintroduced the RAISE Act, which proposed restricting family-based immigration policies in addition to instituting a host of other caps. (An earlier version, which specifically outlined halving the number of green cards issued annually, had previously failed to come to a vote 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 with “improving the fiscal health of the United States” without jeopardizing jobs that could otherwise be held by American citizens or as “protecting or increasing the wages of working Americans.”

Mark Hugo Lopez, the 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 immigration policy debates. Lopez said that for a long time, immigration policy focused on security at the border and illegal immigration but that “now it’s also about employers, student visas [and] attracting certain workers in agriculture or tech.” 

Though the three senators’ legislation had Trump’s backing, the bill did not pass. But notably, evidence suggests that at least some parts of the idea were popular among Republicans. For instance, 42 percent of Republicans, including those who lean Republican, told Pew in a 2020 survey that immigrants living legally in the U.S. mostly fill jobs that U.S. citizens would want to take on, which was 10 points higher than the share of Americans overall who said the same.

J.D. Vance, Ohio’s GOP nominee for the U.S. Senate, has embraced the anti-immigration rhetoric of former President Donald Trump.

Eli Hiller / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Looking ahead to the 2022 midterms and 2024 presidential election, both legal and illegal immigration continue to be important Republican talking points with a number of high-profile GOP figures — from Abbott to GOP Senate nominees like J.D. Vance and 2024 aspirants like former Vice President Mike Pence — doubling down on immigration in their campaign rhetoric and platforms. And it’s once again a blurring of messages, with legal and illegal immigration often used interchangeably and Mexico blamed as the source of all illegal immigration. 

For instance, Vance, Trump’s endorsee for Ohio’s open Senate seat, buckets all of his immigration policy — legal and illegal — under “Solve Southern Border Crisis” on his campaign website. He also has leaned into especially inflammatory rhetoric, running an ad ahead of his primary in which he asked voters: “Are you a racist? Do you hate Mexicans?” as a way to suggest it is the media responsible for such perceptions — although in the same ad, Vance said immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border were primarily responsible for illegal drugs “pouring into the country.”

Meanwhile, Katie Britt, another Trump endorsee who won the Republican nomination for Alabama’s Senate race, splits up legal and illegal immigration in her campaign materials — at least more so than Vance, but she still often muddles the two by suggesting, for example, that all visa issues fall under legal immigration reform and by treating Mexico as the primary source for illegal immigration in the U.S. Moreover, Britt also calls for reducing legal immigration and blames a major immigration bill from 1965 that ended discriminatory practices, like regional immigration preferences and quotas, as responsible for driving down the wages of Alabamians. This is notable, because it marks a huge shift in how GOP politicians have historically talked about legal immigration.

Pence, who has not-so-secret 2024 ambitions, has also talked about immigration in recent speeches. Notably, too, despite having had a fraught relationship with Trump since the end of their term, Pence recently said in a speech in Arizona that he supported curbing family-based migration — or the legal framework that allows American citizens to sponsor visas for extended family members — while also championing a crackdown on illegal immigration at the southern border. Other presidential hopefuls who, similar to Pence, aren’t fully in Trump’s inner circle have also made immigration a part of their pitch, like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. While those more squarely in Trump’s orbit, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, continue to lean into the illegal immigration rhetoric.

As The Washington Post’s David Byler noted on Wednesday, how Republicans talk about immigration has changed dramatically post-Trump, and that’s made it harder to distinguish the differences between legal and illegal immigration, which, in turn, has obscured the nuances of immigration issues. As Lopez told me, the immigrant population in the U.S. is just really diverse, with a lot of different components comprising legal immigration versus illegal immigration. “These broad umbrellas are helpful in some ways to think about broad categories,” he said. “But there’s so much diversity within each one 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 U.S. as immigrants navigating either one of these pathways.”

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