Immigration Critics Drive Trump Surge; Yet Most Americans Favor Legal Status

Donald Trump’s visit to the U.S.-Mexico border marks the extent to which negative views on immigration fuel his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination – and the limits they may impose.

About half of potential GOP voters in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll oppose a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, and Trump wins support from 34 percent in this group, a remarkable tally in a 16-candidate race. Among those who favor providing legal status for undocumented immigrants, by contrast, Trump’s support drops sharply, to 13 percent.

See PDF with full results, charts and tables here.

The results pose two challenges for Trump and other sharp critics of immigration policy: First, the issue divides rather than unites potential Republican voters. Second, a pathway to legal status is far more popular beyond the party’s confines, making the positon a hard sell in the general election.

In all, this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds that Americans by a broad 60-37 percent support allowing undocumented immigrants to live and work in this country after paying a fine and meeting other requirements. Indeed, among supporters, two-thirds say these immigrants should be able to apply for citizenship, not just permanent residency.

Support for legalization reflects generally favorable views of immigrants. Fifty-seven percent of Americans say immigrants mainly strengthen rather than weaken U.S. society. (Thirty-three percent say they weaken it.) Even more, 74 percent, say undocumented Mexican immigrants are “mainly honest people trying to get ahead,” while just 16 percent say that they are “mainly undesirable people like criminals,” as implied by Trump.

There are sharp political divisions. Majorities of liberals (80 percent), Democrats (74 percent), moderates (60 percent) and independents (58 percent) support a path to legal status. A slim majority of Republicans (51 percent) and a plurality of conservatives (49 percent) oppose it.

That said, opponents of legal status are passionate; 82 percent of them feel strongly about it. Moreover, while legalization is consistent with immigration reform passed in the Democratic-led Senate in 2013, Americans are evenly split over which party they trust more to deal with the issue, 40 percent pick the GOP, 37 percent the Democrats. While partisans tend to favor their own side, independents break for the Republicans by 43-27 percent.

2016 Election

Democratic and Democratic-leaning independents are broadly in favor of legalization; leaned Republicans, as noted, are sharply divided, making the issue a key contrast among candidates in their primary contest.

Among leaned Republicans who are registered to vote, 52 percent oppose legalization – and Trump’s 34 percent support in this group puts him 20 points ahead of his closest competitor. Among those favoring legalization (44 percent of leaned Republicans), though, he is essentially tied with other candidates – including Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee and Marco Rubio.

Dems

Differences are far more muted on the Democratic side. Bernie Sanders receives 17 percent backing among supporters of legalization vs. 7 percent among opponents. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden receive roughly equal levels of support regardless of views on immigration.

That said, among the relatively few leaned Democrats who oppose legal status (26 percent), 45 percent are dissatisfied with their choice of candidates, vs. only 19 percent for legal status supporters. There’s no such satisfaction gap on the GOP side.

General

Opinions on legal status also inform general election preferences. Immigration policy views produce mirror images in a matchup between Clinton and Bush: She prevails among supporters of legal status by 62-33 percent; he leads among opponents, 58-33 percent.

Adding Trump as an independent candidate shows potential vulnerabilities for Bush on the immigration front, while leaving support for Clinton nearly unchanged. Among those who oppose legal status, Trump and Bush are tied at 34 percent each. Supporters of legalization overwhelmingly stick with Clinton, 60-25-11 percent.

Groups

There are other notable group differences in views on the issue. Education is clearly related to immigration attitudes. Among adults with a high school degree or less, just fewer than half say immigrants mainly strengthen American society and 54 percent support a path to legal status. Those jump to 71 and 69 percent, respectively, among college graduates.

Support for legalization also dips among whites (53 percent), while peaking among Hispanics (86 percent) and those under 30 (72 percent). In those same two groups – Hispanics and under-30s – majorities support the citizenship option, vs. permanent residency or no legal status.

Additionally, while seniors are less likely than those younger than age 65 to say immigrants mainly strengthen society and are honest, 61 percent support legalization nonetheless.

Methodology

This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone July 16-19, 2015, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points for the full sample, including design effect. Partisan divisions are 30-21-39 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents.

The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.