When Donald Trump began his 2016 presidential bid by declaring that immigrants crossing into the United States from Mexico were largely rapists and criminals sent by foreign leaders, Republican leaders publicly disagreed. Then-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) joined his colleagues in distancing himself from the remarks, assumed, at that point, to be the musings of a long-shot candidate.
Trump won, in no small part thanks to his hard-line rhetoric on immigration. The party’s leaders began to echo his rhetoric, not reject it — a situation that holds true today.
Interviewed by CBS News’s Margaret Brennan last week, the current House speaker, Mike Johnson (R-La.), used language very similar to what Trump presented in 2015.
“Nations like Venezuela and other countries around the world,” he said in the interview that aired on “Face the Nation,” “they’re emptying their prisons. They’re not sending in their model citizens here.”
Johnson also echoed other hard-right rhetoric, suggesting that Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is intentionally encouraging more immigration to the United States. This is an argument made by adherents of the “great replacement” theory, the conspiratorial idea that immigrants are being lured to the United States with the intent to reshape politics and culture.
“I think there must be accountability for that,” he insisted. “And I can tell you, the vast majority of Americans agree with us on that point.”
Probably not. CBS News released polling Monday morning showing that most Americans prefer an approach to immigration that isn’t the one endorsed by Johnson and his party. It also showed, though, that Americans broadly share Johnson’s stated concern about the number of recent arrivals, both over the immediate and long terms.
Johnson was speaking to Brennan during a visit House Republicans made to the border, an effort to elevate the issue of immigration — obviously in part because it’s a point of weakness for President Biden coming into his reelection year.
The CBS poll, conducted by YouGov, found that only a third of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of several issues, including immigration and the border.
The poll also found, though, that Republicans in Congress don’t fare significantly better.
Asked to identify their top problems facing the country, about 20 percent said immigration and the border. It was second only to inflation overall, but among Republicans, the two issues ran about even as points of concern.
Most Americans, including Democrats, see the situation at the border as at least a very serious problem, with nearly half of respondents calling it a “crisis.”
Interestingly, there’s general agreement on why the situation is problematic. Both Democrats and Republicans, for example, say it’s a crisis or very serious problem because of how it reflects U.S. values. There were wider gaps between Democrats and Republicans on other factors, with Republicans being more likely to point to national security concerns and Democrats to the welfare of the immigrants themselves.
Republicans were also significantly more likely to point to “changes to U.S. culture and people” as a concern, again echoing “great replacement” verbiage. More on that in a moment.
Interestingly, more than 4 in 5 respondents overall and from each party agree that a central problem is the failure of the government to handle the influx. Immigrants arriving in the United States often make asylum claims, seeking to be allowed to stay in the country until a court hearing determines if they are eligible for permanent legal status. The increase in arrivals has meant that it takes longer for those hearings to occur, even as it reduces the ability of the government to detain or deport those arrivals.
The resource issue is real. Johnson suggested to Brennan, though, that the proper approach doesn’t involve increased funding to ameliorate it. Instead, he argued that the government should reinstate Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy, under which immigrants awaiting their asylum hearings were transferred to Mexico to do so. (The Biden administration, citing concerns about immigrants’ safety, among other things, ended the policy in 2022.) Johnson also suggested to Brennan that the government should keep more immigrants in detention, rather than releasing them to await hearings.
Asked by YouGov, most Americans indicated that they preferred resolving the situation at the border through improved administration, rather than focusing on blocking new immigrants in the first place.
The poll did find support for a “remain in Mexico”-style policy, with about half of independents and Republicans indicating that asylum seekers should have to leave the country while waiting for their hearings. A majority of Democrats said they should be allowed to remain in the United States. Relatively few respondents said they thought asylum seekers’ claims shouldn’t be heard.
That said, there has been a decrease since a May CBS-YouGov poll in the percentage of respondents willing to accommodate immigrants in their communities. In the May poll, 52 percent of respondents (including 8 in 10 Democrats) said that they support “find[ing] temporary housing and social services for migrants in the city or town” where they lived. The new poll shows overall support fell to 45 percent, with a drop of s points among Democrats.
Despite broad support for addressing the situation by increasing federal resources, most Americans thought that the Biden administration needed to be tougher on immigrants. Just over a third of respondents said either that the administration’s approach was about right or that it was too tough.
This reflects a point of wider divergence: why the increase has occurred. Most respondents said that it was a function of economic conditions or violence in the immigrants’ home countries. Most Republicans, though, pointed to a lack of security at the border or Trump’s failure to complete a wall on the border. Two-thirds of Republicans said that the problem was a function of Biden’s changes to immigration rules.
This response roughly approximates Johnson’s claim that a “vast majority of Americans” agree that the administration is intentionally trying to increase immigration. The poll suggests that’s not true.
You’ll recall that more than half of respondents said that the situation at the border was a very serious problem or crisis because they had concerns about “changes to U.S. culture and people.” YouGov asked a question that got at that sentiment more directly: Would the recent increase in immigrants make American society better or worse in the long run?
A plurality of respondents said that the immigrants would make our society worse. Half of independents held that position, as did fully three-quarters of Republicans.
Even if offered for political/rhetorical purposes, Johnson’s comments about criminals and (at another point in the interview) terrorists coming into the country mirror that sentiment directly.