A review of Texas immigration and border security attitudes as Title 42 ends and Republicans in the Texas Legislature hold the line on border security

The official end of Title 42 restrictions on migrants seeking to enter the United States coincides with the politically charged final weeks of the regular session of the Texas Legislature. For weeks, national and international news coverage has been hotly anticipating the expected surge of migrants already in evidence along the Texas-Mexico border with the ending of what has been an extremely controversial policy. The ending of Title 42 has brought a torrent of criticism of the Biden administration from both ends of the political spectrum, both nationally and in Texas, which will keep the situation on cable news of all political dispositions in coming days, if not weeks.

The build-up to the late-night floor fight that flared in the Texas House this week over bills that would create a state-level “border policing unit” has been a slower burn. Years of UT/TxPP polling data attest to the fact that border security and immigration are never far from the minds of Republican voters (making the same true of Republican elected officials, none more so that Gov. Greg Abbott). One effect of this GOP two-stepping by incumbents and their constituents is that the increased spending for border security contained in both the House and Senate versions of their respective budget bills is one of the few major policy areas in which the two chambers and their leaders have not displayed major, public disagreements this session.

But with the outbreak of heated hostilities in the House over their version of a state border police proposal (which eventually passed in diluted form after the Speaker-endorsed HB 20 went down onto a point of order), and the renewed crisis underway at the border, we have compiled an updated set of results from the Texas Politics Project archive to illustrate patterns of public opinion on the subject in Texas – and how aggressive enforcement policies on the border align with the attitudes of Republican voters in Texas. 

Salience: Republican voters REALLY care about border security and immigration

Except for a brief blip during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, no less than 44% of Texas Republicans have said that immigration or border security is the most important problem facing the state of Texas in 33 surveys conducted between February 2015 and April of this year. And looking at the data, it’s hard not to see a pattern in which the summer kicks off increasing focus on the border, peaking near the end of the year in October polling. In April 2023 polling, 57% of GOP voters chose immigration and the border as the state’s most important problem.

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categoryDemocratsIndependentsRepublicans
Feb. 201514%33%59%
June 201514%25%59%
Oct. 201512%32%57%
Feb. 201617%28%54%
June 20168%29%52%
Oct. 20167%32%56%
Feb. 20178%21%51%
June 20177%36%51%
Oct. 201712%30%44%
Feb. 201812%32%48%
June 20188%24%53%
Oct. 20189%29%62%
Feb. 201911%29%62%
June 201911%35%59%
Oct. 201912%28%57%
Feb. 202010%32%52%
Apr. 20201%8%28%
June 20203%14%29%
Oct. 20203%11%30%
Feb. 20212%23%46%
Mar. 20218%35%61%
Apr. 20216%35%65%
June 20216%35%59%
Aug. 20212%29%64%
Oct. 20212%26%68%
Feb. 20223%28%58%
Apr. 20224%31%61%
June 20222%19%45%
Aug. 20224%38%54%
Oct. 20224%35%61%
Dec. 20223%27%60%
Feb. 20235%32%59%
Apr. 20235%19%57%
June 20237%39%59%
Aug. 20235%38%59%
Oct. 20239%43%60%
Dec. 20237%32%61%
Feb. 202414%44%68%
Apr. 202413%40%63%

When asked more specifically to offer their opinion about what the legislature should prioritize this legislative session using an open-ended question format in which respondents could provide any priority they like, the plurality of Republicans in both February and April polling (49% and 43%, respectively) offered something to do with immigration or securing the border — with no other issue area coming anywhere close in terms of attention.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Immigration / Border4%17%43%
Gun Control / safety22%10%3%
Education6%9%6%
Inflation / Cost of living6%10%8%
The economy6%12%6%
Other5%8%6%
Abortion7%0%1%
Property taxes1%5%6%
Texas’s political leadership1%3%0%
Health care5%4%1%
Equality / Inequality3%1%1%
Voting & elections3%1%1%
The electric grid2%1%1%
Public safety3%1%2%
The budget2%0%1%
Taxes (Not property)1%1%2%
Women’s rights / health3%0%0%
Political corruption1%1%0%
Climate change2%2%1%
Infrastructure0%0%1%
Don’t know13%10%10%

By contrast, only 18% of Republican voters said that immigration or border security was the most important problem facing the country (the same share as pointed to inflation and rising prices, with a similar share pointing to political corruption and/or leadership), illustrating the border’s centrality to Texas Republicans as a state-level issue.

Expanding state spending: attitudes on immigration overwhelm fiscal conservatism

In our mid-session poll conducted just a few weeks ago, support for increasing border security spending was almost universal among Texas Republicans. Asked how important it is for the legislature to accomplish a number of policy goals laid out by the state’s leadership, 63% of Texas Republicans said it was “extremely important” to increase funding for border security operations, with another 24% saying that it was “very important” (87% in total). In fact, only 3% of Republican voters combined said it was either “not very important” or “not important.” The share saying increased border security funding was very important (and the combined very and somewhat important ratings) were higher than for any of the 14 other priorities tested.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Extremely important15%24%63%
Very important18%23%24%
Somewhat important25%12%10%
Not very important16%6%2%
Not important23%21%1%
Don't know/No opinion3%13%0%

This result is largely unsurprising, given that Republicans have consistently registered disappointment with state level spending on border security operations, even as those same levels of spending have increased dramatically over the last several years. Most recently in February 2023 polling, 63% of Texas Republicans said that the state was spending “too little” on border security, the highest share saying this in the 9 surveys in which the question has been asked since February 2019, despite the massive increase in spending levels over that same time period. Border security spending increased more than 40-fold between the FY 2008-2009 and FY 2022-2023 budgets, from $100.3 million to more than $4.4 billion, according to Houston Chronicle reporting by Jasper Scherer based on Legislative Budget Board data.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Too much48%25%9%
About the right amount22%16%22%
Too little20%43%63%
Don't know/No opinion10%16%6%

Remembering the roots of GOP attitudes on immigration

We’ve written repeatedly about the roots of the salience and policy preferences of Republican voters when it comes to border security — they align with restrictive attitudes toward both legal and undocumented immigration, and toward a wariness of the states’ growing ethnic and racial diversity. These are important points to remember when watching any debate in Texas about immigration and the border, and especially in evaluating rhetoric that seeks to pinpoint the driving force behind GOP attitudes and policies as a straightforward response to law breaking by undocumented immigrants – or the conflation of different groups of migrants.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Too many16%45%61%
Too few33%17%8%
About the right amount33%21%22%
Don’t know/No opinion18%18%9%

In eight UT/TXPP surveys conducted between February 2018 and April 2022, between 59% and 67% of Texas Republicans have said that the U.S. allows “too many” people to immigrate here legally. The time frame is important, as any response to these results that points to the COVID-19 pandemic as a reasonable motivator for restrictive attitudes towards legal immigration would have to explain their presence before the pandemic’s onset. During the same period, attidues toward undocumented immigration to the U.S., not surprisingly, were even more negative. As recently as August, 2022, 79% of Texas Republicans agreed with the statement, "Undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States should be deported immediately."

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categoryDemocratsIndpendentsRepublicans
June 201432%56%74%
Oct. 201437%55%80%
Feb. 201535%56%80%
Nov. 201531%59%74%
Feb. 201636%56%74%
June 201625%56%72%
Oct. 201621%53%70%
Oct. 201720%51%64%
Feb. 201817%50%70%
Oct. 201823%57%81%
Oct. 201924%47%76%
Feb. 202020%34%77%
Apr. 202018%46%75%
Feb. 202115%44%72%
Apr. 202118%44%82%
Apr. 202223%52%82%
Aug. 202220%50%79%
June 202331%60%84%
Aug. 202327%55%83%
Feb. 202435%55%80%

The roots of these attitudes are many and complex, but some items in the UT/TXP poll point to both GOP attitudes about American identity, and also wariness of ongoing changes to the racial and ethnic composition of the state. Asked in April 2023 whether the state’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity (a fact with or without continued migration/immigration) is a cause optimism or a cause for concern, the plurality of Republicans, 40%, said said that they see these changes as a cause for concern, with another 37% failing to offer an opinion, and only 20% viewing these changes optimistically. This question has been asked 13 times since June 2019, and in all but one survey more Republican voters viewed these demographic changes negatively than viewed them positively.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
A cause for optimism50%25%23%
A cause for concern37%25%40%
Don't know/No opinion14%50%37%

With respect to American identity, December 2022 UT/TXPP polling found that when asked how important a number of factors were to “being American,” a near majority (49%) of Republicans said it was either “extremely” (30%) or “very” (19%) important for a person to be born in the United States — with another 19% saying it was at least “somewhat important.” 

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Extremely important20%16%30%
Very important13%20%19%
Somewhat important20%19%19%
Not very important18%14%16%
Not important26%25%13%
Don't know/No opinion2%6%2%

Republican voters’ history of favoring restrictive and punitive policies

The combination of the salience of border security and immigration, the prevalence of negative attitudes toward immigration both legal and illegal, and concerns about the implications of growing ethnic and racial diversity among Texas Republicans are also associated with support for increased enforcement of immigration laws, as well as support for restrictive if not punitive policies. In a previous look at these attitudes about a year ago, we compiled an extensive list of examples spanning the last decade:

GOP attitudes on immigration and border security are reflected in political support for executives and candidates

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Approve strongly4%24%60%
Approve somewhat7%16%28%
Neither approve nor disapprove8%14%5%
Disapprove somewhat11%9%2%
Disapprove strongly66%26%4%
Don't know4%10%1%

Republican campaigns in Texas have invoked the importance of border security fairly regularly for the last two decades, and have certainly met the market for such messages (and policies, in most cases) among Republican voters. Gov. Abbott’s successful reelection to a third term followed a winning campaign that in part attacked Beto O’Rourke as part and parcel of the alleged “open border” policy of the Biden Administration, even as O’Rourke attempted to redirect attention to Abbott’s policies.

UT/TXPP Polling has assessed Texans’ stated approval ratings of Gov. Abbott, President Biden, and Beto O’Rourke’s handling of immigration and border security policy in the run-up to the 2022 election.

Republicans rated Gov. Abbott’s performance very highly, with “strong Republicans” particularly enthusiastic, in the October 2022 UT/Texas Politics Project Poll taken in the run-up to that election.

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CategoryLean RepublicanNot very strong RepublicanStrong Republican
Approve strongly49%38%72%
Approve somewhat41%35%21%
Neither approve nor disapprove6%11%2%
Disapprove somewhat3%3%1%
Disapprove strongly2%8%3%
Don't know0%5%1%

Not surprisingly, Republican ratings of Joe Biden were even more intensely negative among in the same survey.

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CategoryLean RepublicanNot very strong RepublicanStrong Republican
Approve strongly0%3%4%
Approve somewhat8%5%4%
Neither approve nor disapprove2%6%3%
Disapprove somewhat1%15%2%
Disapprove strongly88%69%86%
Don't know1%2%0%

The mutual reinforcing effects of deeply rooted attitudes among Texas Republicans, and the determination of the Governor and his legislative allies to reward those attitudes with a no-holds-barred approach to state action on the border, funded by a sky’s-the-limit approach to spending on border security, inform the current moment in border politics in the state. These politics crystallized in a split screen moment earlier this week when Capitol watchers were rocked by the House Committee on Community Safety voting out State Rep. Tracy King’s HB 2477, which would have raised the age of purchasing some automatic rifles from 18- to 21 years of age. (The bill was not scheduled for floor debate by the Republican-led Calendars Committee.) That same day, Gov. Abbott’s communication efforts were focused on promoting the Texas Tactical Border Force and accusing the Biden Administration of “working in collaboration” with drug cartels. As we’ve written extensively in prior posts, the extensive public opinion polling record illustrates the deep roots of support for Abbott’s approach, and its longevity as a feature of Texas politics. The most recent polling, and the trajectory of border policy in the 88th legislature, illustrate that the dynamic remains at work in the final weeks of the session.

 

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