Americans are ‘soft’ on immigration

A big majority of Americans are ‘soft’ on immigration, they probably just won’t vote that way

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The conventional wisdom on Donald Trump is that he's tapped into a nerve. He's saying what others won't about immigration, but so many utterly feel.

Why else have Trump's comments about people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border boosted the New York real estate magnate's standing with so many voters? In truth, that remains a bit of a mystery, one The Fix explored this week here and here. New theories will undoubtedly emerge today, as Trump visits the border region.

[Washington Post Chief Political Correspondent Dan Balz explains the Trump surge]

But, we know this much for sure. Six in 10 Americans support the idea of allowing undocumented immigrants already in the United States to remain and, with some conditions, gain the status needed to work legally. A slightly smaller but still majority stake of Americans, 57 percent, agree that immigrants strengthen American society. Still, those opinions aren't enough to give Democrats -- the party with a platform and a field of 2016 candidates who all consistently hew closest to these positions -- a clear edge when pollsters asked which party would do a better job handling immigration.  That's a pattern that showed up in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll out Thursday.

The questions that revealed this data are new to the Post-ABC poll. But previous Pew Research Center polls have produced similar results.

In a nutshell, people think that the country should craft some sort of way for people already in the country illegally to remain and participate in the workforce lawfully. But, they don't feel strongly enough about that to heap political rewards on any particular political party. Americans divide their loyalties between Republicans and Democrats, 40 to 37 percent in who they trust to do a better job handling immigration issues. Perhaps most notable here is the share who say they trust neither party on this issue -- 15 percent.

That's right. Democrats appear to sit on the right side of public opinion here, favoring legal status and endorsing positive views of immigration in the party's platform and uniformly in the public statements of the party's 2016 contenders. Yet they have no such advantage with Americans on trust to handle immigration. 

So what does all that mean? 

It seems the answer here is, as is often the case, complicated.

Large shares of people support the idea of creating some form of legal status and work permission for those who entered the country illegally. But there are also just enough American adults who find Republicans' generally tougher stances on the border appealing. And those people number high enough to keep the party in contention. 

In fact, 43 percent of Republicans support the idea of allowing undocumented individuals to remain in the country and gain legal work status. But 51 percent of Republicans disagree with this idea. That compares to a 74- 25 split in favor of allowing undocumented immigrants to remain and legally work among Democrats.

There may be a number of feasible explanations for these breaks. Certainly, recent news about the death of a San Francisco woman and the role of a so-called sanctuary city policy in letting the man accused in her shooting death, have drawn lots of attention to the nation's immigration issues. But they also highlighted who has been most profoundly affected by the nation's deportation efforts. Hint: it's not repeat offenders and violent criminals. And, last year's flood of child immigrants from Central America may have rekindled the inaccurate idea that the country is facing a growing tidal wave of illegal immigration. But, federal data suggests that's not the case.

It's also possible that while a large majority of Americans support the idea of creating some sort of legal status for undocumented immigrants, they do not care about it enough to reward Democrats for holding that position publicly and formally. Well, most Americans,  for now.

Latino voters, one of the fastest-growing parts of the population and the electorate, may not number high enough to utterly dominate the primary season. But they certainly are a large enough political force to make companies back away from Trump. Republicans are wringing their hands about what Trump's hard-line immigration stances and those of others less familiar with the spotlight will do to the party's chances in the general election. And, Democrats virtually break out the champagne every time Trump is on TV. Here's why. Latino voters have consistently polled more deeply concerned about immigration than other groups of voters.

Republicans, with their overwhelmingly white base, have a well-documented demographic problem. Take a look at this chart from a 2013 Census analysisto really grasp this phenomenon, then read on.

Republicans know they need a larger share of the Latino vote to win national elections. Democrats may not have a lock on Latino voters, but they certainly have won the votes of the majority for decades. At the same time Latino voters have become increasingly important to Democrats because wining majorities in a few key swing states like Florida can mean the difference between an election-night victory party and preparing a concession speech.

Plus, while no Republican since George W. Bush has earned more than 31 percent of Latino votes, in 2016 Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a Cuban-American, and Jeb Bush, brother of George and husband to Columba Bush, a Mexican-American, are also running for president. At least one of those men has a strong shot at making it to the general election.

[July 1: As Donald Trump surges in the polls Democrats cheer]

Of course, that's at least part of the reason why some Democrats are a few weeks into celebrating about Trump's ascendancy. Donald Trump is running as a Republican. He's all but guaranteed a prominent spot in the Republican presidential candidates' first televised debate. And the odds that he'll bring his brand of immigration thinking with him seem pretty darn high.

The Post-ABC News poll was conducted July 16-19 among a random national sample of 1,002 adults, including landline and cellphone respondents. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. Full results of the poll and detailed methodology are available here.

Janell Ross is a reporter for The Fix who writes about race, gender, immigration and inequality.