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The Diminishing Returns of Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric

A majority of voters want balanced solutions.
November 17, 2022
The Diminishing Returns of Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric
A Border Patrol officer sits inside his car as he guards the US/Mexico border fence, in Nogales, Arizona, on February 9, 2019. (Photo by Ariana Drehsler / AFP) (Photo by ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP via Getty Images)

If the last seven years are a guide, Americans want both compassion and order when it comes to immigration, and they reject chaos and cruelty. The candidates they have been presented with, however, have largely embraced either compassion, on one hand, or chaos, cruelty, and a notion of order made subservient to chaos and cruelty, on the other. This means there is an electoral opportunity for politicians who can strike a balance between border security, respecting the rule of law, and American sovereignty while treating immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers fairly and with dignity and compassion—and those willing to seize the opportunity could solve one of the most intractable problems in American politics and culture. The results of the 2022 midterm elections underscore the point that prevailing approaches to immigration must be abandoned. It’s time for something new.

Consider the recent electoral history on the issue. Since 2014, conventional wisdom for many on the right has been that stoking fears of immigrants and refugees is a winning strategy. That year, Eric Cantor, the GOP House majority leader, experienced a shocking primary loss to David Brat; Tea Party opposition to immigration reform was an important factor in Cantor’s loss, and the new hardline stance Brat advocated would become Republican writ following Donald Trump’s successful, openly nationalist—at times, even nativist—campaign for the presidency in 2016. Republicans have since assumed that making overt appeals to anti-immigrant sentiment and fear of white replacement—concerns party operatives take to be widespread among voters but kept under wraps for fear of censure—would not only secure primary victories among the base, but also win the party control of Congress and the White House.

How has that worked out for them? Well, after Trump won in 2016, he spent two years calling for limits to legal immigration, invoking travel bans, and implementing a de facto family separation policy at the border. The 2018 midterms were, in part, a referendum on America’s immigration policies, especially after Trump made migrant caravans his messaging focus in the run-up to the election. But after Democrats gained 41 seats and took control of the House that year, Trump dropped the dropped the caravans issue, and it soon fell out of the news.

By 2020, Trump’s anti-immigrant emphasis was fading, and as it became less of a priority for him, it also became less of a concern for voters. While 70 percent of registered voters polled in 2016 said that immigration was a top concern going into the election, only 65 percent said so in 2018, and by 2020, that number had dropped to 52 percent. The Trump campaign still talked about immigration negatively as he ran for re-election, but by then he had shifted his rhetorical emphasis more to law and order. But the sentiment was locked in and people remembered. He lost the presidency and Democrats held the House and won control of the Senate, giving them a governing trifecta.

This year’s midterms arrived following the admission to the United States of tens of thousands of Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, and in the midst of a COVID-related buildup of asylum seekers and higher than normal numbers of border encounters. Even so, immigration has remained a relatively low-priority issue for American voters, at least from a negative sense, with only 54 percent rating it as an issue of major concern in Pew’s pre-election poll. (This was the first year since Trump’s 2016 win that the issue did not make the top ten in Pew’s poll.) Some on the right tried to make the border situation a major campaign focus, but the issue just didn’t resonate negatively with voters in the same way it appeared to during Trump’s original campaign. In the news networks’ exit polling, 10 percent of respondents said immigration was the most important issue for them, ranking just below gun policy and crime, and far below abortion and inflation. (Of that 10 percent of voters who prioritized immigration, about three quarters were Republicans and one quarter were Democrats.)

Years of negative rhetoric aimed at immigrants and refugees hasn’t changed the public’s positive perception of them: Polls consistently show over 70 percent of Americans believing that immigration is a good thing for the United States. It’s when you get into the details that the issue becomes divisive.

Year after year, a vast majority of Americans continue to say they want a pathway to legalization for immigrants who entered the country illegally years ago but have otherwise obeyed the law, worked, paid taxes, and contributed to society—and a majority of Americans want secure borders, as well. Those two emphases are not mutually exclusive—and Republicans and Democrats alike really should listen to these twin desires for both compassion and security.

Pew, which closely tracks how views on immigration change over time, explained in September that a majority of Americans want both border security and the rule of law to be upheld and also want better treatment for those here illegally, want the country to be welcoming of refugees and asylum seekers, and want forcibly separated immigrant families to be reunified. While Republicans and Democrats have different areas of emphasis, there are overlapping areas of agreement that could provide a basis for new immigration proposals—if our leaders have the statesmanlike mettle to say no to the extreme views that polarize the issue, and can instead work together to craft a solution that most Americans already want.

To drive this home further, Republicans interested in making a new appeal to Americans on the issue of immigration would do well to pay attention to an important part of their base: evangelicals. While this group has provided the backbone of Trump’s support since 2016, their professed beliefs have always been in tension with not only his character but also some of his policy positions. It is a mistake to assume that because evangelicals largely supported Trump overall, they did so because they were in favor of all of his views, including those on immigration. But in a politically polarized environment with only two real choices, a vote for one candidate can appear to be an affirmation of their whole platform. (And indeed, Trump’s actions during and after his time in office have provided occasions for soul-searching among evangelicals who voted for him as the “lesser evil” despite their misgivings about his character.) While there is no doubt that evangelicals want secure borders, oppose people coming here illegally, want integrity in our immigration system, and desire to uphold the rule of law, new findings suggest that evangelical views on immigration are more complicated than their support for Trump would lead casual observers to believe.

Religiously, socially, and politically conservative while demographically diverse, American evangelicals hold positions on immigration that balance security, order, and compassion while rejecting chaos and cruelty at the border. Taking cues from scriptural mandates to love their neighbors (Mark 12:30-31), welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35), and honor the law and governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7), evangelicals (along with Roman Catholics) envision a path forward that both honors immigrants as human beings made in the image of God with inherent dignity, and respects and affirms national borders and the sovereignty of nation states. This is the major finding of a Lifeway Research survey of evangelicals released in September: “Substantial majorities of evangelicals in the United States say they want an immigration solution that both secures the border and values those already in the country.”

Some further top-level findings from the Lifeway study:

  • “More than 4 in 5 evangelicals [(83 percent)] describe legal immigration as helpful to the U.S., and around 2 in 3 believe the country should at least maintain the current number of legal immigrants approved in a year.”
  • “More than 3 in 5 evangelicals (70 percent) agree the U.S. has a moral obligation to accept refugees.”
  • “Additionally, 69 percent say Christians have a responsibility to care sacrificially for refugees or other foreigners, and 58 percent say Christians should assist immigrants even if they are here illegally.”

Lifeway’s research shows that American evangelicals desire to find solutions that bring together both order and compassion:

  • “Seven in 10 evangelicals (71 percent) say it is important that Congress pass new immigration legislation in 2022. When asked about specific types of emphases they would prefer in immigration policy, evangelicals want laws that provide citizenship opportunities for those who are here illegally and that also protect the U.S. border.”
  • “More than 3 in 4 evangelicals say they support potential legislation that ensures fairness to the taxpayer (94 percent), protects the unity of the immediate family (92 percent), respects the rule of law (92 percent), respects the God-given dignity of every person (90 percent), guarantees secure national borders (90 percent) and establishes a path toward citizenship for those who are here illegally, are interested and meet certain qualifications (78 percent).”

Lifeway ran a similar study in 2015 and has only seen the amount of support grow among evangelicals for balanced, humane, and ordered solutions. The 2022 study further shows:

  • “Nearly 4 in 5 evangelicals (78 percent) would support changes to immigration laws that both increase border security and establish a process to earn legal status and apply for citizenship for those currently in the U.S. unlawfully.”
  • “Four in 5 (80 percent) would back bipartisan immigration reform that strengthens border security, establishes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, and provides a reliable number of screened, legal farmworkers. Additionally, 2 in 3 evangelicals (65 percent) say they’d be more likely to vote for candidates who supported such immigration reforms.”
  • “When asked the best way for Congress to address immigrants who are in the country illegally, 46 percent of evangelicals back requiring them to pay a fine as restitution and then allow them to apply for permanent legal status if they pass a background check and meet other requirements. Fewer would want them deported to their country of origin (25 percent) or granted amnesty and provided permanent legal status (17 percent).”

Now, admittedly, this is where outside observers can get confused when it comes to how evangelicals vote. If they really want balanced solutions on immigration, and by a good majority say they reject negative rhetoric and even favor pathways to legalization while guaranteeing secure borders, then it is valid to question why they can also overwhelmingly support candidates who take hardline positions on immigration like Trump and Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida. But evangelicals contain multitudes, and in a political climate driven by extremes and “lesser of evils” choices, they make political decisions based on several factors, including factors that matter more to them than immigration. A common refrain during the Trump years was, “Well, I don’t like all he does, but he’s better than the alternative.” And if you had drilled down, you would have found that the “all he does” often involved some of the harsher actions on immigrants and refugees, which many evangelicals disapproved of while simultaneously being grateful that he was taking a firm approach on border security. Like I said, evangelicals contain multitudes.

All that said, this isn’t really about evangelicals, except to demonstrate how they, as a major component of the GOP base, seem to be diverging in their views from those Republicans who have bet on harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric as a major way to mobilize the masses. But with that approach failing to move the national electoral needle for three straight election cycles, and in a midterm year where one of the one truly bright spots for the GOP was their increased success among socially and religiously conservative Hispanic voters (who also express a balanced approach on immigration enforcement and legalization), signs increasingly point to the benefit of dropping the biannual appeal to fear of immigrants and refugees that has become part of the political playbook on the right. Even beyond the moral and theological reasons why that approach is wrong, it also just isn’t working any longer from a politically pragmatic position. Instead, Republicans might be able to find better success by leading in governing with solutions that balance security and compassion and that reject chaos and cruelty—and Democrats really should join them.

Alan Cross

Alan Cross is a Southern Baptist pastor, writer, and author of When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus, NewSouth Books, 2014.