Democrats have become far more open to legalizing illegal immigrants over the last decade, while Republicans remain adamantly opposed, according to extensive new polling by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that helps explain the rise of businessman Donald Trump within the GOP presidential field and the dim hopes for getting anything done in Congress.
Little more than a decade ago, voters in both parties generally agreed that unchecked immigration was a significant threat to U.S. vital interests — with Democrats actually topping Republicans in that belief, 63 percent to 58 percent. Now, however, the parties diverge wildly, with 63 percent of Republicans saying immigration is a threat, while just 29 percent of Democrats rate it so.
Independents are spot in the middle, with 46 percent seeing immigration as a threat.
“Today, the partisan gaps between Republicans and Democrats on illegal immigration are at record levels,” the Chicago Council said. “Two-thirds of Republicans, but only one-third of Democrats, say that controlling and reducing illegal immigration is a very important goal of U.S. foreign policy.”
Overall, Democrats share many of the same foreign policy goals as voters who identify with the GOP or who state they are independent, the Chicago Council found, ranging from the threat from radical Islam to the spread of nuclear weapons.
But the two parties split radically on immigration and global warming, where Democrats are far more likely to say the U.S. must change, even if it means major costs to the government and economy: 56 percent of Democrats said climate change is serious and big steps are needed, while just 12 percent of Republicans agreed.
Indeed, Democrats place climate change as a top-five threat to the U.S., while Republicans ranked it dead last out of 20 possible threats, according to the poll, which surveyed 2,034 adults between May 28 and June 17.
The changing attitudes on immigration trace back to the beginning of President George W. Bush’s tenure in office.
Under President Clinton, a Democrat who oversaw the stiffest immigration policies in modern politics, the parties generally agreed that mass immigration was a threat to U.S. interests — and Democrats were even slightly more staunch in that view, at 58 percent to 56 percent for the GOP. But those attitudes changed, ironically, under Mr. Bush, who pushed for more leniency for illegal immigrants.
Democrats appeared to side with Mr. Bush, while his own GOP loyalists split from him. The divide has only deepened under President Obama, who has used the issue as a political wedge, urging Hispanic voters to punish Republicans for not embracing legalization.
But that’s an unpopular opinion within Republican circles, where 45 percent said illegal immigrants should be forced to leave the country, and another 16 percent said they can stay but should never be allowed to apply for citizenship. By contrast, the vast majority of Democrats say they should be allowed to stay and become citizens, either immediately or after they pay a penalty and “wait a few years.”
The presidential candidates mirror that divide.
Democratic candidates are competing to be the most generous toward illegal immigrants, with several of them vowing to go beyond Mr. Obama’s executive actions and grant a deportation amnesty to even more than the 5 million this current White House has tried to include in its policies.
Republican candidates, meanwhile, are sparring over whether illegal immigrants should be granted any legal status at all, even if it does fall short of a special new pathway to citizenship.
America’s Voice, a leading pro-immigrant advocacy group, said the Republican candidates’ rhetoric, and particularly that of Mr. Trump, is leading to a poisonous atmosphere for immigrants.
“While none of the other contenders on the debate stage have fully embraced Trump’s nativist mass-expulsion platform, Republican candidate after Republican candidate is nonetheless lurching to the right on immigration, and embracing patently ridiculous and offensive immigration policies,” the group said in a memo ahead of Wednesday’s GOP presidential debate.
The advocacy group warned that if the GOP doesn’t change its stances or tone on the issue, it will see a political backlash from Hispanic and Asian voters.
An MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist poll released earlier this week found that black voters also fully embrace the cause of illegal immigrants.
On question after question, black voters were as likely, or sometimes even more likely, than Hispanic voters to back lenient policies.
For example, only 23 percent of black voters wanted to see illegal immigrants deported to remove the need for sanctuary cities, which is even smaller than the 27 percent of Hispanics who supported deportation. And 65 percent of black voters found the term “anchor baby” to be an offensive way to describe a child born to an illegal immigrant mother — while just 56 percent of Hispanics found it offensive.
As with the Chicago Council poll, the MSNBC survey found a deep party divide on those questions too.
The split contrasts with most other areas of policy. Despite intense differences between Republicans and Democrats over the Iran nuclear deal and Mr. Obama’s handling of world hot spots, voters in both parties generally favor an active U.S. role in world affairs, the Chicago Council survey found.
Sixty-nine percent of the GOP and 67 percent of Democrats backed a strong American role. Independents are slight outliers, with just 57 percent of them favoring an active role.
Republicans are more likely to perceive Islamic fundamentalism as a critical threat, but the GOP, Democrats and independents all said the threat rose over the last year.