Almost half of Donald Trump’s supporters are for amnesty.
That’s what new numbers from Pew Research indicate. The research group found that 47 percent of Trump supporters favor letting undocumented immigrants stay in the country if they meet certain conditions—in other words, a sizable chunk of Trump’s own backers aren’t exactly itching for a deportation force.
Pew’s conclusions are based on studies conducted in March and April, and they highlight an interesting fact: In the same way that immigration policy divides the Republican Party, it also divides Trump’s own base.
Immigration has long been one of the thorniest issues facing the Republican Party. Since Ronald Reagan signed in to law an immigration bill in 1986 that allowed legal status for millions of undocumented immigrants in exchange for tightened border enforcement, many right-wing activists have opposed any effort to liberalize immigration laws. Though mainstream Republican politicians focus most of their rhetorical ire on undocumented immigration, conservative voters are actually just as opposed to legal immigration—at least, that was the conventional wisdom on Trump’s America.
A cadre of immigration-alarmist groups funded in part by environmentalist and pro-population control foundations has worked overtime to perpetuate that view, endeavoring to push conservative voters to be more skeptical than ever about the benefits of legal immigration. The Foundation for American Immigration Reform even encourages political candidates to pledge they will oppose any hike in legal immigration rates.
Trump’s success in the Republican primary has fueled the perception that these efforts were working and that public opinion among conservatives had shifted on the issue—and in a way that could make it permanently impossible for the Republican Party to woo Hispanic voters. But Pew’s new research undermines that conventional wisdom and suggests Trumpkins may be chiller about immigrants than we thought. Though Pew found a full 84 percent of them support Trump’s wall idea, his deportation force seems to appeal to far fewer of his own supporters.
Part of the reason so many of Trump’s fans are OK with allowing undocumented immigrants stay in the U.S. could be that the vocabulary the mogul and his surrogates use to describe his view is deliberately vague. Trump loves to decry so-called amnesty, suggesting that other Republicans and Hillary Clinton favor leniency for law-breaking criminals.
But in reality many elected Republican politicians use the word amnesty to refer to—well, they don’t actually know; for all practical purposes, it’s a dramatic-sounding synonym for “immigration view the Republican base doesn’t like.” “Amnesty,” with the requisite scare-quotes, doesn’t poll well. But letting undocumented immigrants stay in the U.S. if, say, they pay back taxes, don’t commit felonies, and have jobs? Almost half of Trump’s backers seem fine with that.
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s foes love in the new data. Liz Mair, a Republican consultant and Daily Beast contributor who worked to push the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform effort and founded the anti-Trump Make America Awesome PAC, said the data suggests even Trump voters don’t hate immigrants as much as some may think.
“At some point, no matter how much restrictionist population controllers may continue to scream it, the big lie that Republicans—even faux ones, including a great many Trump supporters—want to deport everyone is going to have to fall by the wayside, just like Trump’s primary-era rhetoric and policy pronouncements probably will,” she said. “It’ll be entertaining to watch Trump try to win by pulling an Olympics-grade flip-flop on immigration, while simultaneously being saddled with the baggage of white supremacist endorsements.”
Pew’s research indicates support for so-called amnesty is larger than some realize, said Mario Lopez, a longtime conservative politico who heads the Hispanic Leadership Fund and favors comprehensive immigration reform.
“I think that at the end of the day, most people understand that it’s too costly, too unworkable, too ineffective to try to deport 11 million people,” he said. “That’s just not going to happen.”
Others are skeptical about the data. Ira Mehlman—media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that favors stricter enforcement of immigration laws—said Pew’s researchers should have given respondents more options. Then they would have found many Americans want policies that aim to reduce the incentives for undocumented immigrants to come to the U.S., he said.
“A lot of polls are skewed because you gotta choose between chocolate and vanilla, and you don’t get any other flavors,” he said. “One of the things that really stands out is the argument that your choices are between mass deportation and letting everybody stay.”
That said, Pew’s new research may not influence President Trump. Wednesday afternoon on CNN, white supremacist William Johnson—who happens to be a Trump delegate from California—said Trump will stand on principle.
“Mr. Trump is the real deal,” Johnson told host Jake Tapper. “He will not govern by public opinion poll.”