More Americans support reducing legal immigration now than in 2020: Is Biden to blame?

Tufts Public Opinion Lab
4 min readApr 7, 2023

By Zoe Kava (Class of 2024)

Former President Donald Trump didn’t do much to hide his negative views towards immigrants during his presidency (and run for presidency). After all, he ran his campaign largely on “America first” ideals, and his promise of building the wall to keep immigrants out. President Biden hasn’t spewed the same anti-immigrant narrative. But when it comes to actual policy, some might say that President Biden’s actions are not all that different from those of Trump. One New Yorker article asked, “Are Biden’s immigration policies stuck in the Trump era?” , proposing that under President Biden, “border policy has changed less than most people think.” Many have noted that Biden’s immigration policy is confusing, especially as he recently announced an expansion of Trump’s “Title 42” policy, which allows officials to deport asylum seekers who cross the border illegally. Even before the “Title 42” announcement, Biden has been criticized for his “cruel” immigration policies, including his decision not to abolish Title 42, and his allocation of increased spending on border surveillance technology. Advocates on both sides of the aisle have attacked Biden for his handling of the border crisis; those on the left have criticized his failure to defend asylum seekers while those on the right call his border policies “weak and ineffective.”

Whether public opinion on immigration is at all shaped by rhetoric, policy, or a mix of both, it’s worth examining where public opinion on immigration stands today, during the Biden presidency, compared to during Trump’s presidency.

Given that research shows that as of 2020, nearly 80 percent of immigrants were in the U.S. legally, I wanted to explore public opinion surrounding legal immigration. To make sense of how public opinion surrounding legal immigration has shifted in the past several years, and where public opinion on legal immigration stands today, I explore data from the three most recent Cooperative Election Studies. The study, which surveyed at least 60,000 American adults in 2018, 2020 and 2022, asked participants whether they support or oppose the following policy: “Reduce legal immigration by 50 percent over the next 10 years by eliminating the visa lottery and ending family-based migration.” Response choices included “support,” and “oppose.”

On average, 44 percent of Americans supported the prompt in 2018, 42 percent of Americans supported the prompt in 2020, and support rose to 46 percent in 2022. The differences in each year were statistically significant. Some might assume that anti-immigrant sentiment was highest during Trump’s presidency. Instead, support for reducing legal immigration is higher now than it was in 2020. In order to understand why support has increased, I looked at the trends in support among Democrats and Republicans.

Interestingly, when broken down by political party, I find that support for a decrease in legal immigration over the past several years mostly comes from the Democratic Party. In 2020, around 19 percent of those who identify as Democrats favored decreasing legal immigration. In 2022, this number rose to 29 percent. On the other hand, though Republicans are more likely to support a decrease in legal immigration, support has remained stable at around 70 percent over the past several years. If anything, support for reducing legal immigration among Republicans is lower than it was in 2018, during Trump’s presidency.

I also examined public opinion on legal immigration by state, and found that even among several “blue” states, like New York and California, support for decreasing legal immigration has risen between 2020 and 2022. While Biden’s moderate immigration approach is certainly a possible explanation, another explanation is that many “blue” states have recently been subject to mass migration. For instance, in New York, buses of migrants arrived from Texas in late 2022, and in Massachusetts, immigrants were flown to Martha’s Vineyard from Florida on Governor Ron DeSantis’s order. Some of these cities have reported concerns with the mass influx of immigrants overwhelming city services, housing, and costing millions of dollars. However, as shown in the graph above, Massachusetts has actually seen a drop in support for the prompt between 2020 and 2022, in contrast to New York and California. Texas, who has sent immigrants over to the East coast, does not see the same rise in support for decreasing legal immigration between 2020 and 2022. In Florida however, support for the prompt has risen between 2020 and 2022.

Support for reducing legal immigration remains short of a majority of voters, but support has grown under Biden’s presidency, particularly among Democrats (and in some “blue” states). Whether or not Biden is to blame is worth exploring further.

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Tufts Public Opinion Lab

The Tufts Public Opinion Lab (TPOL) is dedicated to studying contemporary controversies in American public opinion using quantitative data analysis.