Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Racial Justice | Voter Guide

Americans Back Trump On Immigration — But Only To Stop COVID-19, Poll Finds

Photo caption:

Photo by Mario Tama Getty Images

A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle is stationed in front of the U.S.-Mexico border barrier as construction continues in hard-hit Imperial County on July 22, in Calexico, Calif.

Most Americans support Trump administration efforts to stop immigrants from coming to the United States as long as it's done in the name of slowing the spread of the coronavirus, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll.

But Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric during the pandemic has done little to budge public opinion on other immigration policies, the poll found. Most of Trump's policies, including his border wall, remain unpopular except among Republicans.

"Americans do want to take steps to limit immigration right now," said pollster Mallory Newall. "But that's not because their views on immigration have changed. It's because they want to do everything in their power to contain the spread of COVID-19."

Meanwhile, immigration is no longer a top concern ahead of the November election. The poll shows it has been eclipsed by the coronavirus, racial justice, unemployment, political extremism and a range of other pressing issues.

The poll was conducted July 30-31 and surveyed 1,115 adults from the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii.

The poll found broad support for a single, national strategy to address the pandemic and for more aggressive measures to contain it. Two-thirds of respondents said they believe the U.S. is handling the pandemic worse than other countries, and most favor more aggressive action, including a nationwide order making it mandatory to shelter at home for two weeks.

Since March, Trump has taken broad actions to curtail legal immigration during the pandemic, imposing new limits on green cards and visas for guest workers, and turning away asylum seekers at the southern border. The administration also closed the southern and northern borders to all but "essential" travel.

There is sizable bipartisan support — 85% of Republicans and 75% of Democrats — for temporarily shutting down the borders. And more than half overall support limits on legal immigrants, though that is largely driven by Republicans.

"I feel like we need to take care of America first," Tammy Bunce, a Republican respondent from Queen Creek, Ariz. "We should be staying at home, and I think other countries should not be coming in until we have the coronavirus especially under control."

Another respondent, Robert Torres of San Leandro, Calif., is a third-generation immigrant from Mexico who identifies as politically independent. He said: "Right now is not a very good time to be immigrating."

That's partly because of the pandemic, Torres says, but also because "there's a lot of undocumented here that should be documented before we start adding to the immigration."

President Trump has made his immigration crackdown a signature policy and key to his argument for reelection.

From the outset of the pandemic, Trump has blamed foreigners for bringing coronavirus to the United States, calling it the "China virus" and "kung flu." He's also returned to a familiar refrain about protecting American jobs as justification for the latest immigration restrictions, pointing to the battered economy.

But Americans remain divided on immigration policy when it's not tied to stopping the spread of the virus.

"I get right now that we got this pandemic going on, that's fine," said Jo Lee of Houston, Texas, in a follow-up interview. "But once this calms down, if somebody really wants to come over here and raise their family and be a citizen, let them do that. I don't have a problem with that," said Lee, who says she often votes for Democrats.

That divide was clear when poll respondents were asked about whether the federal government should provide stimulus relief checks to undocumented immigrants who pay U.S. taxes: 49% of respondents said yes, including 71% of Democrats; 43% said no, including 66% of Republicans.

The NPR/Ipsos poll found that underlying attitudes about immigration are deeply entrenched, remaining remarkably stable since a previous poll in 2018. For example, about 70% of respondents — then and now — say immigrants are an "important part of our American identity."

And efforts to build a border wall and limit immigration still fail to garner majority support, except among Republicans, according to the poll:

  • Fewer than half say the U.S. should build "a wall or fence along the entire U.S./Mexico border," with 43% expressing support now compared to 40% two years ago.
  • Just 36% support ending the Diversity Visa Lottery system, which is designed to bring in immigrants from nations that are under-represented in the U.S, down from 39% in 2018.
  • 49% say the U.S. has a "moral obligation" to accept refugees facing persecution, a slight uptick from 46% two years ago.
  • 59% support legal status for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, often referred to as "Dreamers," compared to 60% support in 2018. 

What has changed, according to the new poll, is how much weight Americans place on immigration as an issue.

Two years ago, one in four respondents cited immigration as one of their top concerns, and it ranked fourth behind health care, crime and terrorism. Now 46% of respondents say COVID-19 is a top concern, while immigration has fallen out of the top 10, with only 11% of respondents saying it's one of the topics they find "most worrying."

Immigration is no longer "a major factor when it comes to deciding who to vote for," Ipsos pollster Mallory Newall said.

"That's where we're sort of almost seeing bipartisan agreement," she said. "People may not have the same stance when it comes to how to deal with the virus, how to deal with immigration. But what they do know is that taking care of COVID, and addressing that and taking care of the economy, is priority number one, full stop."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

FEATURED PODCAST

San Diego News Matters podcast branding

KPBS' daily news podcast covering local politics, education, health, environment, the border and more. New episodes are ready weekday mornings so you can listen on your morning commute.

  • Need help keeping up with the news that matters most? Get the day's top news — ranging from local to international — straight to your inbox each weekday morning.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Curious San Diego banner

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or sign up for our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.