When Republicans Talk About Immigration, They Don’t Just Mean Illegal Immigration

This past spring, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott captured headlines for his plan to bus migrants to Washington, D.C. He said he was concerned that there would be an influx of migrants crossing the state’s border with Mexico in light of President Biden’s decision to cease a public-health order from 2020 authorizing federal officials to turn away migrants at the border — even those seeking asylum.

Many, including the Biden administration, chalked up Abbott’s actions to a publicity stunt. After all, illegal immigration is something that has long motivated Republican voters, especially when a Democrat is in the White House. The fact, though, that so much attention is paid to illegal immigration misses how the debate on immigration policy is changing in the U.S. — namely, Republican politicians are increasingly blurring the lines between illegal and legal immigration and targeting not just illegal immigration, but legal immigration too.

Over the past two decades, support for increasing legal immigration has climbed steadily overall, although Democrats have primarily driven that uptick, as the chart below shows. In fact, per 2019 polling from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Republicans are not only less likely to support increasing legal immigration but also more likely to support reducing legal immigration. Almost half of Republicans (47 percent) said legal immigration should be decreased, compared with just 16 percent of Democrats.

The distinction between legal immigration and illegal immigration is often not clear-cut, though. Consider that only a minority of unauthorized immigrants, 38 percent, entered the country without proper documentation in 2016, according to research conducted by the Center for Migration Studies. Instead, the majority of unauthorized immigrants who entered the U.S. that year, 62 percent, overstayed their temporary visas, meaning they initially arrived in the U.S. legally but proceeded to remain illegally with expired paperwork. Moreover, the Pew Research Center looked at 2017 data from the Department of Homeland Security and found that almost 90 percent of those who overstayed their visas were from neither Mexico nor Central America.

By Zoha Qamar
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