Texas Catholic bishops are critical, but in the pews, immigration views are split

(This piece originally appeared in The Texas Tribune)

The Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement calling Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to opt out of the federal refugee resettlement program “deeply discouraging and disheartening” brings renewed attention to what has been called a “balancing act between [his] Catholic faith and politics.” Public opinion data suggest Abbott’s position will land very differently with Republican Catholics than it did with the church leaders who were moved to publicly dissent from his decision.

The key question about the political consequences is whether the shepherds are expressing the views of their flocks. Not surprisingly, given the very public divisions that stretch from the pews to the two living popes, there are differences of opinion among Catholics, and in this particular context, they fall along partisan lines. As it turns out, none of these Catholic leaders — those in the church and the one in the governor’s office — have cornered the market for Catholic support on immigration issues.

A large minority of Texas Catholics identify with the Republican Party, a pattern which resembles American Catholics overall, with predictable deviations based on Texas’ particular demographic characteristics. According to the Pew Research Center, Catholics in America are about evenly split in their partisan identification. A similar distribution is found in University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling. Approximately one-fifth of Texas’ registered voter population identifies as Catholic; they split their partisan preferences almost evenly, with a slight edge to Democrats. Catholic Republicans are almost evenly split between White and Hispanic Texans (50% and 46%, respectively); among Catholic Democrats, the vast majority (70%) identify as Hispanic.

Back in 2016, during the outbreak of the Syrian refugee crisis, we found that 73% of non-Catholic Republicans disapproved of “Texas accepting refugees from Syria who have gone through a security clearance process,” statistically indistinguishable from the 76% of Catholic Republicans who also disapproved. And maybe more directly, only 18% of Catholic Republicans said that these refugees would be welcomed in their communities (62% said they would not be welcomed), nearly identical to the shares of non-Catholic Republicans.

Two years later, in June 2018, we asked Texas voters whether or not they “support or oppose separating children and parents who are apprehended while trying to enter the U.S. illegally,” in response to the outcry — especially amongst clergy— over that policy. Somewhat surprisingly at the time, 46% of Republicans expressed support for separating parents and children at the border, including 51% of Catholic Republicans and 45% of non-Catholic Republicans.

This is not to say that there aren’t some differences between Catholic and non-Catholic Republicans in attitudes towards immigrants. Asked in October 2019 whether the U.S. allows too many, too few, or the right number of legal immigrants into the country, 59% of Republicans said that the U.S. allows too many, with non-Catholic Republicans 13 percentage points more likely than Catholic Republicans to take that position (61% to 48%). But the differences are limited. On one of the most fundamental attitude checks that recurs in the UT/TT Poll, when asked whether undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. should be deported immediately, 74% of Catholic Republicans agreed (40% strongly) compared to 76% of non-Catholic Republicans.

Much of the media coverage of Abbott’s decision to opt out of the federal refugee resettlement and the subsequent criticism of his move has focused on the political context of Abbott’s position. CNN religion editor Daniel Burke writes that “Abbott himself has often cited his Catholic faith to defend conservative policies.” Republican Catholics’ attitudes on immigration and the treatment of immigrants suggest that the critical Texas bishops’ are performing a political balancing act of their own: Their congregants are more sharply divided on immigration issues than Abbott’s target constituency of GOP partisans. But unlike the governor, they don’t face the judgment of voters.