Protesters gather at JFK International Airport to demonstrate against President Donald Trump’s executive order on Saturday in New York. BRYAN R. SMITH / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
Polls reveal support for a reduction in numbers, but not an outright ban.
Donald Trump signed a wide-ranging executive order on Friday that resets the United States’ immigration and refugee programs. The policy bars immigrants from seven heavily Muslim countries from entering the U.S. for 90 days, including people with green cards. It bans all refugees from entering the U.S. for 120 days, and indefinitely bans Syrian refugees. And it cuts the number of refugees the U.S. will accept overall in 2017. (For a more detailed rundown, read here.)
The scope of Trump’s executive order is such that we’re largely in uncharted waters. Past polls are only so useful, as most of them did not ask about actions as broad as the ones Trump undertook. This isn’t like same-sex marriage, or other more straightforward yes-no issues that have been polled for years. I’d be suspect of anyone claiming it’s clear which way public support will go on Trump’s actions — at least until we get more polling.
Slight differences in framing and question wording can also have big effects on how well immigration, refugee and terrorism policies poll. Whether Trump’s executive order is viewed in humanitarian terms or (as the Trump administration has tried to frame it) in the context of counterterrorism could go a long way towards determining how much the public supports it.
In the meantime, here’s what we do know:
1. In the context of terrorism, at least a plurality of Americans are OK with immigration bans.
The Trump administration has argued that this is not a ban on Muslims. Rather, they’ll likely argue, as the order itself does, that the policies are meant “to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals admitted to the United States.” It’s not at all clear these policies will actually improve national security, but the American people have been more supportive of immigration restrictions in the name of counterterrorism. In a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in January, 48 percent of voters supported “suspending immigration from ‘terror prone’ regions, even if it means turning away refugees from those regions.” Forty-two percent were opposed. And a December Politico/Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health poll found 50 percent of Americans were in favor of “banning future immigration from regions where there are active terrorist groups.”
2. But a majority of Americans oppose a religion-based immigration ban.
Just 41 percent of Americans supported a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country who are not U.S. citizens, according to an August 2016 ABC News/Washington Post poll. A slight majority (52 percent) were opposed. A July CBS News/New York Times survey, which asked a similar question, found only 35 percent of voters thought the U.S. should temporarily ban Muslim immigration.
It’s possible, however, that these polls understate support for Trump’s plan. The surveys by ABC News and CBS News were conducted by live interviewers and called cell phones — generally the most accurate way to conduct a poll. But given that banning Muslim immigrants could be seen as a politically incorrect position, some Americans may feel uncomfortable voicing support for a ban to a stranger in a telephone poll. Morning Consult and YouGov, which conduct surveys over the internet, found a small plurality of Americans support temporarily banning Muslims from entering the U.S.
How long these policies are left in place could also play a role in how the public responds to them. Trump’s immigration and refugee restrictions, at the moment, are only temporary. But his executive order opens the door to more bans in the future, which could prove more unpopular. In the December Politico poll, just 18 percent were in favor of “banning future immigration of people who are Muslim.” The longer Trump’s immigration restrictions remain in place, the more pushback he might encounter.
3. Americans seem OK with lowering the number of refugees accepted by the U.S., but outright bans are not likely to be popular.
Americans think the U.S. accepts too many refugees, whether Syrian refugees specifically or all refugees. In July 2016, when the U.S.’s goal was to allow 10,000 Syrian refugees in per year, an Associated Press/GfK Knowledge Networks poll found that 53 percent of Americans thought the U.S. should allow fewer Syrian refugees to enter the country. Only 11 percent thought we should accept more, and 33 percent thought that level was about right.
But the same Marist poll showed a full Syrian refugee ban was less popular. More Americans (49 percent) thought we should continue our current policy for Syrian refugees than institute a temporary ban (43 percent). And according to a CBS News survey from October, 61 percent of respondents said the “U.S. should allow refugees from Syria into the United States as long as they go through a security clearance process.”
A September 2015 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, meanwhile, gave respondents four choices: whether to take in more Syrian refugees, fewer refugees, maintain the 10,000-refugee policy, or take in no Syrian refugees at all. Only 24 percent of respondents selected no refugees. However, this number increased to 38 percent in a December, 2015 version of the poll after the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California. While a total ban on Syrian refugees is unlikely to be popular, therefore, opinion about it could ebb and flow based on the extent to which Trump is able to tie his policy to terrorism concerns.
There’s very little data on how Americans would feel about an overall ban on refugees. The April 2016 Marist College poll found that a majority (53 percent) of the public thought we should allow fewer refugees into the country, although a 50 percent plurality in the poll also said the U.S. had a moral obligation to take in refugees. As is the case with Syrian refugees, however, an outright ban would probably be much less popular than a reduction in numbers.
4. To repeat ourselves, there’s a lot we don’t know.
Again, there are so many ways to look at these numbers. Will Americans react more to the fact that the U.S. is temporarily banning all refugees or to the halts on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries? It’s just not clear how it will play out politically. American opinions on immigration, counterterrorism and refugees are complicated and interact with one another, and different opinions can be activated at different times. Furthermore, some aspects of the policy — such as banning U.S. green card holders from re-entering the United States (or only allowing them to re-enter on a case-by-case basis) — have not been polled at all. For the time being, it’s probably safe to say that the policy is neither as unpopular as its detractors might hope for, nor as popular as its supporters might assume. But that could change as the public learns more about it in the days and weeks ahead.