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Americans don’t want Trump’s border wall. This is what they want instead.

- January 11, 2019

Americans have lately been spectators for a gladiatorial battle between President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The president insists on getting $5.7 billion for a border wall in exchange for agreeing to fund the government and end the shutdown. The California Democrat refuses flatly, resolutely calling the border wall “immoral.”

Are Americans equally divided? A recent in-depth survey reveals, as have other polls, that while a clear majority opposes the wall, attitudes differ by party.

But the survey reveals something still more important. The public at large, including Democrats, Republicans and independents, agrees on many immigration reforms that amount to an alternative strategy. Bipartisan majorities favor current proposals in Congress that aim to prevent the hiring of undocumented workers, alongside proposals that would create more opportunities to hire immigrants legally.

Here’s how we did our research

The Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland surveyed 2,407 registered voters from Oct. 1-16 with an online probability-based sample provided by Nielsen Scarborough, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 to 2.8 percent. To ensure respondents understood the issues, we had them read a short briefing on both the U.S. immigration program and a number of reforms in proposed congressional legislation, including arguments for and against each one. To ensure the briefing was accurate and balanced and that the strongest arguments were presented, proponents and opponents of the proposals reviewed the content.

Americans don’t want a wall

Overall, only 4 in 10 favor building a wall. Fewer than half our respondents were convinced by the argument that a wall would prevent potential threats from coming into the country and would strengthen U.S. borders. Nearly two-thirds, including 4 in 10 Republicans, were persuaded by the counterargument: Because migrants can always find alternative routes to crossing the border, there are better methods for deterring illegal entry.

They want employers to be able to hire more immigrant workers, as long as the employers confirm that workers are here legally

By contrast, 72 percent favored a Republican-sponsored congressional proposal that would require employers to use the existing E-Verify system to ensure that they hire only people who have the legal right to work in the United States. Fully 83 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of Democrats supported the bill.

At the same time, 8 in 10 respondents agreed that “many industries in the United States … need immigrant labor, which is why they currently hire millions of them. It would be much better if this process was done in a legal way.”

But how? A majority supported a proposed bill — 69 percent overall, including 73 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of Democrats — that would substantially increase the number of temporary work visas, called H-2B visas, for such industries as landscaping, construction, hotels and conservation, a bill that includes some caveats about ensuring that no Americans are available and that immigrants get paid as much as Americans do.

Most also want to increase the number of green cards to fill jobs that require a skill that is needed in the U.S. economy, as well — 54 percent overall and 63 percent of Democrats — with similar caveats. However, even though this proposal is one of the few that has been touted by the Trump administration, 53 percent of Republicans are opposed — although in a separate question, a modest majority said they could tolerate the idea.

A similar majority, or 55 percent, support another proposal for guest farmworkers that would allow them to be paid less than is required now — a drop from $11 to $14 per hour to $8.43 per hour and eliminating the current requirement that they be given housing and transportation. In this case, 69 percent of Republicans are in favor, and 55 percent of Democrats opposed.

Overall, Americans aren’t opposed to immigration

Here’s what may be the most telling result: When told about the details of the largest component of the U.S. immigration program — the more than 800,000 family members of U.S. citizens and legal residents granted green cards each year — in only one category of family members did a majority call for reducing the number of green cards. Republicans favored more reductions, but they did not call for eliminating the program in any category.

And Americans support continuing the green card lottery, which provides 50,000 green cards per year to qualified applicants. Only 1 in 4 wants to get rid of it — and only 4 in 10 Republicans, even though the Trump administration has called for eliminating it.

Americans want the “dreamers” to have a path to citizenship

In Congress, both Republicans and Democrats have proposals for dealing with young undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, also known as “dreamers.” Asked to evaluate a number of such proposals, the most popular for both Republicans and Democrats is one that includes a path to citizenship. Overall, 70 percent find this proposal at least tolerable, including 67 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Democrats.

All this data suggests that the American public is comfortable with more than a million people a year predominantly arriving from non-European countries. Although most Americans are uncomfortable with how many people arrive undocumented, it does not appear to be because they simply do not like foreigners.

Rather, most Americans want to rationalize immigration, ensuring that the process occurs in a regulated, legal fashion and that people who come in can join the economy without hurting American workers.

Steven Kull is director of the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and president of Voice of the People, which seeks to give the public a greater voice in government.