Republicans Support Legal Immigration. The Republican Party Does Not.

Engage in a discussion about immigration policy with any group of Republicans — online or at a GOP meeting or at a public forum — and inevitably you’ll hear:

“I’m not opposed to immigration, just ILLEGAL immigration!”

Discuss specific policies like Dreamers, or asylum-seekers, or mass deportations, and you’ll at some point get:

“Get in line and do it the LEGAL way!”

Most Americans support legal immigration, which is an indisputable good for the country and is an integral component of American exceptionalism. In addition, most Republicans support legal immigration. The two most recent surveys, more than 18 months into the Trump Era, reaffirm this:

Quinnipiac University, June 14 – 17, 2018, n=905 voters

Q: Do you think that legal immigration to the United States should be increased, decreased, or kept about the same as it is now?


Increased: 16%
Stay the same: 52%
Decreased: 28%

Gallup Poll, June 1 – 13, 2018,  n=1,520 adults

Q: Thinking now about immigrants — that is, people who come from other countries to live here in the United States, in your view, should immigration be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased?


Increased: 20%
Kept at current level: 35%
Decreased: 42%

Depending on the wording of the question (the Gallup poll excludes the word “legal”), that’s anywhere from 55 percent to 68 percent of Republicans who support keeping immigration at current levels or increasing it, and a minority as low as 28 percent who support restricting legal immigration levels. The restrictionist cause is even more unpopular among all voters: just 29 percent in the Gallup poll (a record low in their surveys, they note) and just 17 percent in the Q-Pac poll want to decrease legal immigration levels.

It’s clear that in the tradition of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan, Republicans support legal immigration.

Unfortunately, today’s Republican Party does not.

Let’s start with a hypothetical. If a Democratic Congressman introduced a bill that reduced legal gun ownership by up to 50 percent, you would oppose that bill and you would (accurately) label that Congressman as “anti-gun.” So what do you make of Republicans who vote to cut legal immigration by up to 50 percent?

There’s been a lot of legislative activity on immigration that’s worth a deep dive, but as a quick overview:

The House, led by Speaker Ryan, has only allowed two immigration votes: (1) a bill introduced by Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), and (2) a so-called “compromise” bill. The second bill was put forward to prevent GOP moderates from signing onto a discharge petition that would’ve passed a bi-partisan immigration bill. Opposed to a bi-partisan approach that could earn a majority support, Ryan instead convinced moderate Republicans to craft a GOP-only bill. There were a handful of differences between the two bills, but they both had the same approach to legal immigration: gutting it.

Both bills removed legal routes to immigration and made it more difficult to use the remaining routes. Using the standards and numbers presented in both the Goodlatte bill and the “compromise” bill, either bill would result in a nearly 40 percent reduction in legal immigration immediately, with around a 50 percent reduction over ten years. The Goodlatte bill received over 190 (Republican-only) votes (roll call), with 41 GOP holdouts, mostly moderates. The “compromise” bill received only 121 (Republican-only) votes (roll call), but convinced 28 of those moderate hold-outs from the first bill to support it.

The only Republicans who voted against both attempts to cut legal immigration were libertarians like Justin Amash and Thomas Massie, and the most extreme immigration hardliners like Steve King and Louie Gohmert, who oppose anything less than deporting Dreamers. Otherwise, almost every single Republican in the House has voted for a massive cut to legal immigration.

Meanwhile, the Senate actually held open votes on immigration legislation. These votes were won by Chuck Schumer as a concession back in the weekend shutdown in January. One of the bills was introduced by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), based on the “four pillars” pushed by President Trump and his administration. Those four pillars are:

1) A pathway to citizenship for Dreamers;

2) A border wall (paid for with funds of a non-Mexican origin);

3) Restricting family sponsorship of legal immigration;

4) Ending the diversity lottery.

While Democrats have conceded full funding for a border wall, the latter two pillars sink any change of passage. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging or even prioritizing merit-based immigration. But merit-based immigration and family-sponsored immigration are not mutually exclusive. You don’t have to close access to legal paths to immigration in order to make it easier for high-skilled workers to bring their talents to the country.

The only reason to insist on removing current paths to legal immigration, like family sponsorship or the diversity lottery, is to reduce legal immigration rates, and that is exactly what the “four pillars” (and the Grassley bill) do:

Source: CATO Institute 

(As a quick aside: the figures for refugees and aslyees are caps, not admissions. Due to separate restrictions pushed by the Trump Administration, the United States is on track to only admit 21,000 refugees this year, less than half of the 45,000 cap and down from 97,000 in 2016. The most recent data we have on aslyee applications were 20,455 admitted in 2016, around 55 percent of the cap; the Trump Administration has zealously sought to restrict access to legal asylum since taking office through tactics like family separation.)

Thus, a vote for the Grassley bill is a vote against legal immigration, despite its popular support. Such a plan has no hope to pass the Senate. Indeed, the Trump plan received the lowest amount of votes of any immigration bill with only 39 votes (roll call). Still, a majority of the Republican caucus voted for deep cuts to legal immigration.

There was another vote the same day, on a bi-partisan bill known as the “Round-Kings” bill. This bill fulfilled two of President Trump’s pillars: it provided a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, and it provided the full $25B for the border wall, two things Donald Trump says he wanted. Almost every Democrat voted for it, giving it a real chance to pass. But it didn’t include any cuts to legal immigration, so Trump said he would veto it. As a result, many Republicans who might normally support it voted against it, and though the bill got a majority support with 54 votes, it failed to reach the necessary 60 for cloture (roll call).


— An overwhelming majority of Americans support legal immigration.

— A majority of Republicans support legal immigration.

— Almost every Republican Congressman voted to gut the legal immigration system.

— Over half of Republican Senators voted to gut the legal immigration system.

— The Republican Administration’s priority is to cut legal immigration, so much so that Trump would veto the Wall.

The next time you hear someone argue that no one in Congress is serious about protecting Dreamers, or complain that Congress hasn’t approved the Wall yet, remember that we would have these things if the Republican Party wanted those things more than it wanted to cut legal immigration.

Make no mistake: legal immigration is under attack. It is up to immigration-supporting Republicans to demand better from our representatives.

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