Pragmatic Approach to Changes to the U.S. Census Trumped by Nativist Attitudes in Texas GOP

Criticism in Texas of President Trump's push to include a question about citizenship status in the Census has focused on reductions in federal funding for programs likely to result from an undercount of immigrants wary of reporting their status (legal or not) to federal authorities, as well as the potential negative impact on Texas' Congressional representation. U.S. Senator Ted Cruz quickly supported the change, as did other state Republican leaders, while Democrats made largely symbolic calls for Texas to join other states with significant immigrant populations in suing to prevent the change. Texas polling data reveals that nativist GOP attitudes toward immigrants and immigration, both legal and illegal, present a significant political obstacle to consideration of arguments about representation and the distribution of resources by Republican voters and, in turn, by the officials those voters have nominated in GOP primaries and then elected to office in general elections. 

Characterizing the modern GOP as nativist or anti-immigrant earns frequent denials from GOP leaders who claim that the rule of law or public safety is the primary concern of rhetoric and policy that often focuses on either strict enforcement of current immigration laws or vigorous defense of the Southern border. But a number of questions on both illegal and legal immigration in University of Texas / Texas Tribune polling casts doubt on these claims – and underlines why Texas Republican leaders who might consider publicly opposing the Trump Census order on practical grounds will need to overcome the powerful, existing dispositions of their Republican voters. 

In the February 2018 University of Texas / Texas Tribune Poll, a large share of Republicans continued to express their lack of tolerance for undocumented immigrants remaining in the United States – with 70 percent of Republican voters expressing support for the proposition that all undocumented immigrants should be removed from the country immediately (a result in line with responses to this item in many previous UT/TT polls).

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Strongly agree7%23%38%
Somewhat agree10%27%32%
Somewhat disagree26%16%17%
Strongly disagree50%30%9%
Don't know/No opinion8%3%4%

These results were not particularly surprising given trends over several years of the UT/TT poll, as well as the state political leadership's response to these attitudes. In the 2017 session, the Republican majority in the Texas legislature passed a headline grabbing anti-sanctuary city law that required Texas’ law enforcement agencies to cooperate with Federal immigration authorities and barred those same agencies from prohibiting officers’ questioning of a person’s immigration status when that person is legally detained.  The bill enacting these measures signed with attention-grabbing style by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in a Facebook live event whose target audience was GOP partisans. The state's leadership was playing in tune with their political base: in October 2017 UT/TT polling, 88 percent of Republicans supported requiring local law enforcement officials to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, and 69 percent said that officers should always be able to question a person’s immigration status.

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Strongly support11%52%72%
Somewhat support12%16%16%
Somewhat oppose27%11%5%
Strongly oppose38%10%3%
Don't know/no opinion13%10%4%

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Local law enforcement agencies decide policies for their officers70%42%26%
Officers should always be able to question a person’s immigration status15%51%69%
Don't know/no opinion15%8%6%

A less well-established finding in the February 2018 poll underlines the likely resistance among GOP leaders to adopting a response to the negative repercussions to the state of this particular change to the census. While Texans’ punitive responses to illegal immigration ar well-rehearsed, the poll also explored Texans views of legal immigrants. Here, the results deviate little from attitudes towards illegal immigration: 62 percent of Republicans expressed the opinion that the United States allows too many people to immigrate here legally, and a plurality, 49 percent, disagreed with the statement that "newcomers from other countries enrich Texas with their hard work and values."

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Too many21%41%62%
Too few25%11%5%
About the right amount38%32%22%
Don't know/No opinion15%16%10%

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Strongly agree46%13%9%
Somewhat agree35%34%31%
Somewhat disagree6%20%30%
Strongly disagree3%24%19%
Don't know/No opinion10%10%10%

And these attitudes extend even further. While the debate over birthright citizenship as guaranteed by the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution has, for now, receded from the public agenda, in November 2015 UT/TT polling, in the wake of proposals to do so by candidate Trump as well as other Republicans (including a feeble attempt by Senator David Vitter of Louisiana), 66 percent of Texas Republicans favored repealing this part of the 14th Amendment.

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Don't know / No opinion13%16%12%

Were immigration competing with other priorities for the attention of Republican voters, one might imagine a scenario in which at least some in the state's GOP leadership might attempt to redirect attention away from the nativist attractions of the change in the Census and toward pragmatic concerns about defending the flow of federal funds available to the state for social spending, transportation, and education. In the 2016 fiscal year, according to the Comptroller's office, federal funds comprised more than a third of state budget revenue (35.5 percent). However, immigration and border security routinely top the list of concerns cited by Texas Republicans as the most important problems facing the state – and by wide margins, as the graphic below illustrates. Nothing else comes close.


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Border security2%12%25%
Political corruption/leadership16%11%2%
Health care11%6%4%
Hurricane recovery5%0%5%

Given this array of attitudes among the voters who dominate both the selection of GOP statewide candidates as well as the selection of winners in the general election, these elected officials' remain eternally vigilant in their efforts to remain on the right side of the electorate – and each other – on all things related to immigration. The result is that they continue to channel the nativist impulses that course through their base, for better or for worse when it comes to major policy consequences. In his press release claiming no small share of the credit for initiating this change, Senator Cruz declared, "A question on citizenship is a reasonable, commonsense addition to the census." In this case, reason and commonsense are clearly being defined in narrow, if recognizable, terms.