Why immigration and border security endure as the central axis of Texas Republican politics

For the last decade, no issues have more consistently occupied the consciousness of Texas Republican voters than immigration and border security. Evidence provided by multiple polls, considered in the context of politics and policies pursued by a generation of Texas Republican leadership, illustrates how nativism has become a major animating force in Republican politics in the state. While the term “nativism” carries negative connotations, nearly a decade of public polling data illustrate the pervasiveness of such attitudes among Republican voters, even if the term is likely to be hotly refuted by those whose attitudes and (in the case of public figures) rhetoric and policies make the description demonstrably apt.

Data from the Texas Politics Project polling data archive illustrate the consistent salience of immigration and border security, and the specific orientation of Republican voters. In 21 of the 27 surveys conducted by the Texas Politics Project since 2015, a majority of Republican voters have said that immigration or border security was the most important problem facing the state. Four of the six instances in which they didn’t top the list came at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic; the other two instances were near majorities (48% and 44%, respectively). 

In the same period, the substance of GOP attitudes expressed in response to questions about the border, legal and undocumented immigration, and migration, taken on the whole, exhibit a consistent pattern of opposition or outright hostility to all forms of immigration that could result in people from other countries entering Texas. The consistency of Texas Republican voters’ views around all matters related to border security and immigration policy continued – in many instances even more elevated – in the most recent University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll in which 61% of Republicans again cited border security or immigration as the most important problems facing the state.

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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%

We included questions on the April UT/TxPP poll that illustrate the broader context of the intensity and durability of immigration and border security attitudes over the last decade. Responses to particular issues and policies, taken in isolation, lend themselves to a variety of siloed interpretations; taken together and over time, they paint a more complete picture.

While both popular and (especially) academic uses of the term nativism vary, most definitions see it as rooted in the belief that immigration from other countries should be limited in order to protect the national well-being of a country (cultural and otherwise) from the inherent threat posed by the current and future presence of non-native born people. Broadly speaking, those who share an in-group identity reacting defensively against an out-group. The in-group can be minimally thought of as current citizens defending a nationalist conception of collective identity rooted in some conception of ancestral ties to the U.S. (usually vaguely defined in some combination of ethnic, racial, religious, and/or historical terms), while the out-group are members of other nations attempting to enter the country from outside, the very presence of whom are seen as threatening to nativists' conception of national identity and cultural integrity. 

The evident currency of nativism within Republican politics invites attention to the relationship between political elites and voters in the Texas GOP. Prominent understandings of the relationship between elected officials and voters in a majoritarian democracy like the U.S. give pride of place to partisan elected officials and other elite opinion leaders as powerful influences on their partisans’ political and policy preferences. The consistent pattern of nativist attitudes in Texas public opinion we elaborate below implicates a generation of political leaders that fed these long-evident impulses among their voters even as they followed them in order to get elected and re-elected, in a mutually reinforcing dynamic amplified by the current pattern of one-party rule by the GOP in Texas.

The most immediate example of these dynamics between leaders and voters is Gov. Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star” and its embrace by Texas Republicans, as well as by a non-trivial share of Democrats, and a large share of independents. The perpetual search by Texas leaders for ways to respond to (and therefore benefit from) the salience of border security and immigration among Republican voters by acting in a policy domain assigned to the federal government once could reasonably, if a little cynically, be thought of as simply gestural politics and even a matter of theatrics. Republican dominance of state government has consistently coincided with more or less incremental increases in state spending on border security measures accompanied by loud rhetoric on the failures of the federal government to preserve the integrity of the border (and thus of the nation) – and by good photo ops. (This approach was a hallmark of the late Perry governorship, as a 2014 photo essay by Kolten Parker illustrates, that continued into the Abbott administration.)

But the gestural nature of Abbott’s most recent policy moves and the response of the GOP base make it hard to treat the underlying impulses driving these responses as expecting, or likely to be satisfied with, a policy solution. Large numbers of migrants flowing to the southern border for a variety of reasons represent a very real, complex policy challenge, one that both parties have perennially failed to effectively tackle across multiple presidential administrations.

One might plausibly argue that Abbott’s approach has been a reasonable response to a real problem that the federal government has failed to address. But there’s little reliable evidence that the main policy approach implemented by the Abbott administration is having much of an effect on the actual structural problem of international migration through the U.S./Mexico border region. Ample reporting shows the lack of results from the now one-year old Operation Lone Star in any of its major goals — fighting drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and human trafficking, and reducing crime in the border region, most noably recounted in an ongoing investigative reporting project by a joint ProPublica/Marshall Project/Texas Tribune team finding that irregular data reporting by state agencies has obscured how meager the results actually are. 

Even aside from what seem like recurring efforts to “juke the stats” related to the operation, Abbott’s other recent plays on immigration and border security have been long on theatrics but short on returns (or even ran in the red, as with the short-lived truck inspection policy in April). And the search for new opportunities to turn public attention toward the subject continues, as evidenced by the fact that Abbott’s initial public response to the possibility of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade was to suggest that such a decision might be used to mount an effort to undermine the Supreme Court precedent requiring states to pay for the education of undocumented public school students, and even more recently, by tying the shortage in baby formula to immigration by blaming the federal government for providing formula to infants in its custody (as it is required to by the courts).

Policies that cater to a partisan base might be earnestly undertaken. But Abbott’s focus on maintaining a continuous flow of rhetoric and policy initiatives that keep border and immigration politics at the center of the public agenda in the absence of any substantial successes, makes it hard to accept Operation Lone Star (or talk of a Texas-funded wall, or increased truck inspections, or busing migrants out of the state) as a search for solutions. The state level policies put forth to feed the desires of the GOP base ignore the structural roots of migration surges to the U.S.-Mexico border and the historical failure of managing border flows solely through stepped-up enforcement measures. Even allowing for the argument that the federal government’s failure to effectively address such problems creates real frustrations for the state, the notion that any of the policies so far undertaken by Texas have any chance of effectively stepping into the breach are just that — notional, at best. 

Longstanding patterns of GOP public opinion on immigration suggest what the base wants here – and what Republican elected officials are trying so desperately to appear to be giving them. We look closely at the rich body of relevant results in the series of surveys the Texas Politics Project has accumulated over 15 years of polling in Texas to find the roots of the seemingly insatiable demand for attention to the questions raised by immigration and border security issues in Texas. Republican elected officials go to great lengths to supply responses that have little chance of having much real impact on the problems they are highlighting. But their high visibility and rhetoric do feed underlying attitudes and beliefs that are activated by directing negative attention toward immigrants, immigration, and the border. 

Republican voters are not the only audience with whom nativist appeals are likely to resonate. Throughout the body of data examined here, large shares of independents and, in many instances, non-trivial shares of Democrats also reveal concerns about immigration and border security, and negative views of the consequences of the impact of demographic changes in the United States. But as the discussion below illustrates, nativist attitudes are much more prevalent among Republicans than among independents or Democrats, and more consistently so across multiple contexts. Consequently, nativism is much more central to the politics of the Republican elected officials and associated opinion leaders who shape governance and policy in Texas. 

While the foreign nationals who enter the U.S. do so in a variety of ways and under a variety of circumstances (like on airplanes through airports with visas), the political discussion around immigration centers on illegal immigration (which is often conflated with both legal immigration and flows of refugees). So we start with the ur-issue of border security: undocumented immigration.  

Republicans’ sustained sensitivity to illegal immigration is prominent in responses to a question first included in the UT poll in 2014. It was designed to elicit respondents’ basic disposition toward the presence of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. The question is as follows:

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement: Undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States should be deported immediately.

UT polls have repeated this question 16 times between June 2014 and April 2022, finding, on average, 51% of Texans agreeing with the statement and 42% disagreeing, with minimal fluctuations over time (less than 5 points in either direction for those agreeing or disagreeing).  In response to this item in April 2022 polling, 54% of Texans agreed with a policy of immediate deportation while 38% disagreed. This result was, and is, driven heavily by partisanship, with 82% of Republicans agreeing (and a majority, 57%, strongly agreeing) that the U.S. should immediately deport all undocumented immigrants, while 77% of Democrats disagreed, 44% strongly.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Strongly agree9%31%57%
Somewhat agree14%21%25%
Somewhat disagree23%22%10%
Strongly disagree44%13%4%
Don’t know/No opinion9%13%5%

Among Republicans, the share agreeing hasn’t dipped below 64% over the time series. The 82% who agreed in the most recent poll was the highest recorded, tied only with the last time the item was asked on a UT poll in April of 2021. The share “strongly agreeing” with the immediate deportation statement only hit a majority once in the 14 measurements taken prior to February 2021 (51% in October 2018 on the brink of an election in which a reported border caravan was used to mobilize GOP voters late in the race), but hit 57% in the most recent poll, statistically unchanged from the 58% who said the same one year ago.

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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%

Emphasizing the removal of undocumented immigrants also has electoral benefits for GOP candidates, especially when the state’s redistricting process places most of the competition in GOP primaries. The most recent data from April 2022 finds strong agreement with immediate deportation jumping to 64% among strong Republicans, and to 74% among those who identify as extremely conservative, while rural voters, a central bloc of the GOP coalition, agree with a policy of immediate deportation, 68% to 25%.

Again, all things being equal, attitudes favoring the immediate deportation of undocumented immigrants might plausibly be attributed to (or, subjectively, justified by) ethical and policy dispositions, while better regulation of undocumented immigration and the handling of the undocumented already in the country are reasonable policy goals. But in broader context, these results suggest something beyond the inherent authority of nation-states to maintain orderly borders and flows of people. Most immediately, GOP attitudes on legal immigration suggest that these impulses stretch beyond those who can easily be classified, politically, as “law-breakers.”

A majority of Texas Republicans also routinely express the belief that the U.S. admits too many legal immigrants. Since 2018, the UT poll has included an item testing attitudes about legal immigration that reads:

Thinking about legal immigration, do you think the United States allows too many people to immigrate here from other countries, too few, or about the right amount?

In the April poll, the plurality of Texans, 40%, said that the U.S. admits too many legal immigrants, with 26% saying the U.S. admits the right amount, and 19% saying the U.S. admits too few. But here again, we find that the majority of Texas Republicans, 61%, believe that the U.S. lets in too many legal immigrants, while only 8% feel that the U.S. lets in too few.

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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%

We have the benefit of having asked this item a number of times over the last four years (7 times between February 2018 and April 2022) given the prominence of immigration as both a Texas and national issue. Here, we find consistent results, both overall and among Republicans. Over this period, no fewer than 59% of Republicans, and as many as 67%, have said that the U.S. allows too many legal immigrants, while no more than 8% have said the U.S. lets in too few.

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categoryToo manyAbout the right amountToo Few
Feb. 201862%22%5%
Oct. 201866%21%6%
Oct. 201959%24%7%
Feb. 202062%25%6%
Apr. 202062%25%6%
Aug. 202167%19%7%
Apr. 202261%22%8%
June 202368%24%8%
Aug. 202372%21%7%
Feb. 202468%19%8%

This opinion also thrives in the most intense corners of the GOP: 68% of strong Republicans, and 67% of extremely conservative voters, say that the U.S. allows too much legal immigration.

Taken together, in the most recent survey, 56% of Republicans support both the immediate deportation of undocumented immigrants and a reduction in legal immigration. The share increases to 63% among strong Republicans, 64% among the extremely conservative, and 66% among those Republicans who say that immigration or border security is the top issue facing the state.

In addition to attitudes toward legal and illegal immigration already discussed, support among Republicans for approaches to limiting the entrance of foreign nationals to the U.S. or Texas extends to a range of policies tested in UT polling over the last decade: 

The massive increase in state funding for border security by the Texas Legislature at the direction of Gov. Abbott represents an escalation of the Republican elected class’ public commitment to a militarized approach to both border and immigration policy. While the term “massive” may seen hyperbolic, it is not: in the span of just one biennium, between the 2020-2021 and the 2022-2023 state budgets, border security spending increased by more than 500% according to the classifications used by the Legislative Budget Board, from $800 million in authorized spending for the 2020-2021 bienieum to more than $4 billion for 2022-2023, including the the additional $493.5 million diverted from other agencies last month.

Despite these dramatic, ongoing spending increases, there’s no indication that Republican voters, traditionally associated with fiscal conservatism, are concerned – at least not yet. In April, a slight plurality of Texas voters, 32%, said that the state was spending too little on border security, while 30% said the state was spending too much. A majority of Republicans, 51%, said that the state was spending too little, which marked the lowest share saying this in 6 surveys going back to the beginning of 2019. In 4 of the 6 surveys over that period, at least 61% of Republicans said the state wasn’t spending enough. The decline in April is interesting and worth monitoring to see if the increases coupled execution problems and the sheer magnitude of spending have dented GOP enthusiasm. But one data point does not make a trend.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Too much54%26%12%
Too little10%30%51%
About the right amount18%18%22%
Don’t know/No opinion18%26%15%

What about how Texas is spending those increased funds? After assessing the extent to which voters had heard about the state’s buildup of police and military resources on the border, our brand neutral question about Abbott’s “Operation Lone Star,” the survey found nearly-unanimous GOP and conservative approval – 90% of each, respectively – among members of those groups who had heard anything at all about the build-up.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Support19%45%90%
Oppose66%34%5%
Don’t know enough to have an opinion15%21%5%

Given these levels of GOP support for components of his border policies, it follows that Abbott receives his highest issue area job approval among Republicans in response to his handling of immigration and border security, 80% approval.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Immigration & border security10%40%80%
The coronavirus/COVID-1912%33%76%
Voting & elections8%32%77%
Crime & public safety12%29%76%
The economy10%35%72%
Public education13%18%66%
The electric grid in Texas10%23%61%
Climate change7%19%52%

Both the underlying general attitudes about immigration as well as the various policy results described above from between 2015 and 2021 raise the issue of Donald Trump’s impact on the already existing, reinforcing dynamic between GOP voters and their elected officials on immigration and border security rhetoric and policy. We’ve written before about the surge of nativism among Republicans prior to Trump’s rise, as well as its currency in the Texas GOP as the 2016 presidential primary unfolded

Trump’s reordering of Republican politics, expressed in part in his administration's undisguised desire to pursue aggressive measures to staunch both legal and undocumented immigration, provides a different context for thinking about some of the results already mentioned above — in particular, attitudes towards some of the policies his administration implemented, and the underlying issues they raised. In the aftermath of the Trump administration’s child separation policy – wrestled with, but ultimately supported by Republicans (as mentioned in the list above) – a majority of Texas Republicans, 57%, said that the Trump administration’s enforcement of federal immigration laws had not gone far enough. Trump’s overall approval among Republicans with respect to his handling of immigration and border security in that same poll was 87%, with 62% strongly approving. 

And, of course, there was Trump’s trademark wall on the southern border, the iconic precursor to Gov. Abbott’s embrace of gestural pseudo-policies. As Trump’s call for a wall was helping him win the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, a June 2016 UT/Texas Politics Project Poll found that 76% of Texas Republicans supported building a wall on the border, 54% strongly; after his election, 78% supported it, 60% strongly.

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Gone too far81%38%9%
Been about right9%16%30%
Not gone far enough5%36%57%
Don't know5%10%4%

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Approve strongly3%20%62%
Approve somewhat3%15%25%
Neither approve nor disapprove6%14%3%
Disapprove somewhat10%7%3%
Disapprove strongly77%44%7%
Don't know2%1%1%

However unsuccessful Trump’s wall project turned out (in both practical and political terms), the former president’s no-hold-barred approach to immigration and the border clearly resonated with Texas Republicans. His embrace by the base had a powerful demonstration effect on Texas leaders, including Abbott. Trump’s opponents (both in the Republican Party and outside of it) frequently labeled him an extremist (and, more specifically, a nativist and/or a racist), in response to both his rhetoric and (less frequently) his policies on immigration. 

Abbott and his legislative allies appear to have drawn a different conclusion: Trump had tapped into a deep well of political sentiment among Texas Republicans, and that well was far from dry. Trump lost in 2020, but Abbott remained, and has tapped the same source with his own border wall, and with Operation Lone Star and its ongoing side shows.

Trump’s immigration rhetoric deployed classic nativist conceptions of national identity while generally posing all immigrants as an external (and existential) threat bringing crime, disorder, and subversion to the homeland. In the context of immigration, but also in his response to the renewed civil rights protests triggered by police violence agains Black arrestees and the larger discussion of race after the “Unite the Right” White supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia less than a year after his election, his portrayal of a forgotten “silent majority” reinforced the in-group identity of his supporters. Trump’s well-documented symbiotic relationship with White nationalism added specific content to the nativist conception of in-group identity he exploited.  While his wide-ranging slandering of all examples of immigrants, legal and illegal, as well as refugees from political and humanitarian disasters, provided a sweeping and accessible portrayal of external threat that was readily identifiable to his target audience. The nastiness and range of his rhetoric are well documented, from his characterization of Mexican immigrants when he declared his candidacy to his comparing refugees from the Syrian war to a “Trojan Horse,” to his unfounded claims that “there is no real assimilation” among Middle Eastern immigrants. (Dara Lind has diligently reported and written about Trump’s nativism for Vox.) The scope of Trump’s rhetoric underlines just how dedicated he was to a totalizing conception of all people beyond U.S. borders as out-group threats. (Never one for consistency, he occasionally made passing exceptions for some groups in some circumstances, as with his campaign exceptions for “dreamers,” though he never followed up with policy on this point.)  

However, polling data suggests that the specifics probably matter when it comes to refugees and migrants – with the ethno-nationalist and racial threads of American nativism likely playing a role in assessments of how much threat particular national or cultural groups pose to the prevailing conceptions of national identity. In addition to the results already outlined above, polling results suggest that the specifics of who is seeking entrance at the border, or specific aspects of those seeking entrance, likely shifts the politics of immigration and border security in terms of both public opinion and policy. We don’t have much data on how the increasing presence of migrants from countries other than Mexico, many seeking asylum on either humanitarian or political grounds, has shifted attitudes. We don’t expect much of an effect among Republicans based on the presumption of both limited awareness of the specifics of migration (among everyone), the power of preexisting dispositions about immigration, race, and national identity, and political rhetoric meant to reinforce the most politically advantageous narrative that emphasizes illegal immigration and criminal activity.

However, in the most recent UT/TxPP survey, we did a quasi-experiment comparing Texans’ willingness to receive refugees from Central and South America with their willingness to accept refugees from Ukraine. Half the respondents received a question asking whether Texas should or should not accept Ukrainian refugees who have completed a security clearance process; the other half saw the same item, but with Central and South American refugees substituted for Ukrainians. 

Overall, 60% of Texas voters said the state should accept Ukrainian refugees, while only 46% said the same of Central and South American refugees. Among Democrats, refugee acceptance was statistically indistinguishable, 75% supported accepting Ukrainian refugees, 73% Central and South American refugees. Among Republicans, a bare majority, 51%, supported accepting Ukrainian refugees (31% said Texas should not accept them), while just 26% said the same of Central and South American refugees (64% said Texas should not accept them).

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Should accept75%46%51%
Should not accept11%29%31%
Don’t know/No opinion14%25%18%

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Should accept73%39%26%
Should not accept11%39%64%
Don’t know/No opinion16%22%10%

This does require some caveats. Obviously, the plight of Ukraine has been front and center in the news. And in the same UT polling, a plurality of Texans said that the U.S. was doing too little in response to the situation in Ukraine

At the same time, the UT poll has also asked whether or not Texas should accept refugees who have gone through a security clearance process multiple times, and the responses tell a similar story: save the Ukrainian case, a majority of Republicans have said that Texas should not accept refugees in 5 different survey measures going back to a question about Syrian refugees in October 2016.

Among Texas Republicans: Should Texas Accept Refugees Who Have Gone Through a Security Clearance Process
(University of Texas Polling)
  Should Accept Should not Accept Don't know/No opinion
Apr. 2022: Ukrainian refugees 51% 31% 18%
Apr. 2022: Central and South American refugees 26% 64% 10%
Oct. 2021: Refugees from other countries 31% 56% 13%
Feb. 2020: Refugees from other countries 28% 56% 16%
Oct. 2016: Syrian refugees 12% 77% 10%

Taken together, this raises the possibility that Republicans may harbor the baseline opinion that people from other countries pose a danger (even those who have gone through a security clearance process) across both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations.

We find similar indications in the most recent poll with respect to attitudes toward the spread of COVID. While, unsurprisingly given trend data, only 13% of Texas Republicans said that they were either “extremely” (3%) or “very” (10%) concerned about the spread of COVID in their communities, 48% said that they were either “extremely” (25%) or “very” (23%) concerned about people from foreign countries bringing coronavirus into Texas. Put another way, Republicans are 8 times more likely to be extremely concerned about hypothetical foreigners spreading COVID in Texas than they are about very real neighbors (in a state where the fully vaccinated share is just under 62%, which is in the lower middle of the pack of states and U.S. territories).

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Extremely concerned18%13%3%
Very concerned24%24%10%
Somewhat concerned38%22%16%
Not very concerned14%18%28%
Not at all concerned4%23%42%
Don't know/No opinion2%1%1%

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Extremely concerned17%18%25%
Very concerned17%20%23%
Somewhat concerned25%21%28%
Not very concerned27%24%12%
Not at all concerned11%14%10%
Don't know/No opinion4%2%2%

In a more broadly posed question about people from other countries coming into the U.S., without specification of conditions or countries of origin, in October 2019 the UT poll asked whether newcomers from other countries strengthen American society or threaten traditional American customs and values. Two-thirds of Republicans, 67%, said that newcomers threaten traditional American customs and values

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categoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Threatens traditional American customs and values21%40%67%
Strengthens American society64%42%16%
Don't know/No opinion16%18%18%

And in a recurring item in Texas Politics Project polls in recent years, voters were asked whether Texas’ increasing racial and ethnic diversity is a cause for optimism or a cause for concern. The last time we asked this, in October of 2021, the plurality of Republicans, 40%, were unwilling to offer an opinion either way, while nearly equal shares of the remainder, 32% and 29%, said that the state’s increasing diversity was a cause for optimism or concern, respectively. In this context, it’s not surprising to find that in the most recent poll, the majority of Texas Republicans, despite the state leadership’s penchant for emphasizing how much people want to move here, said that population growth has been bad for the state.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Good42%25%29%
Bad24%42%52%
Don’t have an opinion33%33%19%

If nativism applies to a worldview defined by a desire to preserve and protect a besieged collective identity from the threat of being undermined or even erased by foreigners from outside the national homeland, then it’s difficult not to see it at play in attitudes long expressed by large shares of Texas Republicans in polling over the last decade. 

To the extent that nativism expresses in-group defensiveness of a particular construction of shared identity rooted both in geographical territory and in a shared historical ethno-national identity, many aspects of the ensemble of Texas Republicans’ attitudes invite application of the term. Wariness of the effects of increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the state, and a tendency to see outsiders from other cultures more as a threat to the collective values than as a source of strength, speak both to the internal cultural defensiveness in play, and to the perception of the threat from beyond our borders. These perceptions of internal vulnerability and external threat pervade attitudes toward defending the border, expelling immigrants who are present without permission, and preventing the entrance of people from other countries under most circumstances.

Those to whom the term nativism applies can be expected to find the term derogatory, particularly in the United States, where nativist impulses conflict with the fundamental tenets of liberal values such as equality, liberty, individualism, and universal human rights. Yet even though nativists may bristle at the term, this is more likely a matter of rejecting an impolite label even as they justify their own conception of the altogether reasonable expectation that nations have the right to enforce their borders, and to pursue the principle of national self-determination. That they can do so publicly, based on very narrow and militant conceptions of both of these principles informed by reactionary conceptions of American identity, is a relatively recent reversal of the intermittently evolving norms of American political discourse since the Civil Rights movement.

The attempt to cry foul at the application of the term “nativism” works in conjunction with the temptation to simply accept the ever-lengthening list of poll results as business-as-usual without actually routinely using the term. After a while, one gets accustomed to seeing immigration and border security topping the list of most important problems facing the state in poll after poll. In this case, it may be that familiarity numbs contempt rather than the usual formulation. But more to the point, familiarity can lead one to stop thinking critically about the underlying political currents that lend such a charge to immigration and border politics, and to simply accept them as another mundane facet of the Republican Party’s conservative turn.

The sharp pushback against the slightest hint that Republican elected officials may not be channeling the better angels of their base voters’ nature is also a tactic to condition the boundaries of public discussion of what is happening in the Republican party around issues of national identity and race. The fierce partisan backlash by Republican elites and social media users against “cancel culture” and the imagined pervasiveness of “critical race theory” is certainly intended as a counter-offensive against a broad range of policies and public discussion since at least the civil rights era. But it’s also meant to be pre-emptive of frank discussion in the here and now.

Speaking of preemptive rhetorical aggression: as we’ve demonstrated above, the prevalence of the component attitudes of a nativist view of American (and perhaps Texan) identity among Texas Republicans was in evidence long before Donald Trump made such views central to his celebrity, then to his political identity, then, finally, to his presidency. It is necessary (if not sufficient) to include Trump’s elevation of nativism from a prevalent but sublimated, socially borderline acceptable way of thinking to one of the most powerful unifying forces in the Republican Party. We refer skeptics to the national and Texas polling data that capture the affective response to Trump’s call to build that wall – or to review clips of his rallies during the 2016 campaign and, even more telling, during his presidency.

Yet it's important to remember that Trump was not the progenitor of the nativist impulses that preceded his rise, though those impulses have now been liberated to provide fuel for political entrepreneurs who have outlasted him in office – which quickly brings us back to Texas. The discourse and policy emanating from the Governor’s mansion, with the cooperation of a legislature in institutional decline, is a far cry from the days when then-Governor Rick Perry attempted to tap into similar sentiments, albeit more carefully, by trying to distinguish a militant hawkishness on border security from a more measured position on undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. His failed attempt to thread that needle in the 2012 GOP presidential primary, when he was booed by a GOP debate audience for questioning whether those who would deport “Dreamers” “have a heart,” was a leading indicator of Trump’s eventual validation of the sentiment that erupted in response to Perry — and of the embrace of the resulting politics by Perry’s successor.

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