Donald Trump set off yet another wave of anguish and frustration among Republican political elites Sunday with more provocative statements about immigration, along with the release of a Trump immigration plan influenced by the Senate's leading immigration hawk. But there are indications Trump's positions on immigration are more in line with the views of the public — not just GOP voters, but the public at large — than those of his critics.
"Donald Trump: Undocumented Immigrants 'Have to Go,'" read the headline at NBC News, where Trump appeared on "Meet the Press." "They have to go," Trump told moderator Chuck Todd, referring to immigrants in the U.S. illegally. "We either have a country or we don't have a country." At the same time, Trump unveiled a brief immigration position paper, created in consultation with Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, calling for, among other things, an end to the 14th Amendment's guarantee of birthright citizenship.
Some of Trump's presidential rivals, and no doubt many in the GOP establishment, were appalled. "Our leading Republican is embracing self-deportation, that all of the 11 million have to walk back where they came from, and maybe we'll let some of them come back," Sen. Lindsey Graham said on CBS. "I just hope we don't go down that road as a party. So our leading contender, Mr. Trump, is going backward on immigration. And I think he's going to take all of us with him if we don't watch it."
But are Trump's views on immigration as far out of the mainstream as Graham suggests? Are they out of the mainstream at all? A recent academic paper, by Stanford professor David Broockman and Berkeley Ph.D candidate Douglas Ahler, suggests a majority of the public's views on immigration are closer to Trump's than to the advocates of comprehensive immigration reform.
The Broockman/Ahler paper, published in July, is about more than just immigration; it examines the range of public opinion on several issues. On each, the authors gave a scientifically-selected group of respondents a broad range of policy options. On immigration, they listed seven possibilities, ranging from open borders to shutting down all immigration. These are the options Broockman and Ahler presented to respondents:
1. The United States should have open borders and allow further immigration on an unlimited basis.
2. Legal immigration to the United States should greatly increase among all immigrant groups, regardless of their skills. Immigrants already in the United States should be put on the path to citizenship.
3. Immigration of highly skilled individuals should greatly increase. Immigration by those without such skills should continue at its current pace, although this immigration should be legalized.
4. Immigration of highly skilled individuals should greatly increase, and immigration among those without such skills should be limited in time and/or magnitude, e.g., through a guest worker program.
5. The United States should admit more highly skilled immigrants and secure the border with increased physical barriers to stem the flow of other immigrants.
6. Only a small number of highly skilled immigrants should be allowed into the United States until the border is fully secured, and all illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. should be deported.
7. Further immigration to the United States should be banned until the border is fully secured, and all illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. should be deported immediately.
Here are the results Broockman and Ahler got: 4.7 percent supported Option One; 17.4 percent supported Option Two; 10.8 percent supported Option Three; 12.0 percent supported Option Four; 17.0 percent supported Option Five; 13.8 percent supported Option Six; and 24.4 percent supported Option Seven.
The largest single group, 24.4 percent, supported the most draconian option — closed borders and mass deportation — that is dismissed by every candidate in the race, including Trump. Add in the next group that supported Option Six, which would allow only a "small number" of highly skilled immigrants to enter the U.S. and also involve mass deportations, and the number increased to 38.2 percent. Then add Option Five, which would allow only highly skilled immigrants while physically blocking the border, and the number increased to 55.2 percent.
"Many citizens support policies that seem to fall outside of the range of policy options considered in elite discourse," Broockman and Ahler conclude.
Trump's immigration stance appears to fall somewhere between Option Five and Option Six, perhaps a little closer to the latter. It's probably fair to say that, if Broockman and Ahler are correct, a majority of Americans — not just Republican voters, but all Americans — hold views that are consistent with Trump's position, or are even more restrictive. Opponents like Graham portray Trump's immigration position as far out of the mainstream, but that doesn't appear to be the case.