Donald Trump soared to victory in South Carolina yesterday, beating his nearest competitors — Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz — by more than 10 points. But while Palmetto state voters appeared to back many of Trump’s hardline policies, there was at least one issue where the majority of GOP voters disagreed with the bombastic businessman: legal status for immigrants.
Granted, some of Trump’s policy proposals were eagerly supported by Republicans in the Palmetto state, according to a CNN exit polls. About 3-in-4 said they would endorse a temporary ban on Muslims entering the U.S. — something Trump proposed late last year following the tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, France perpetrated by members of the militant group ISIS in November.
But when it came to undocumented immigrants, South Carolina voters were less hardline than Trump, who — along with Ted Cruz — has pledged deport the 11 million migrants currently living in the United States. According to exit polls, 53 percent of South Carolina Republicans say immigrants working in the U.S. illegally should be allowed to apply for legal status, compared to 44 percent who say they should be deported to their home countries.
To be sure, a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants is not the same thing as a pathway to citizenship, which would help bring millions of people out of the shadows and incorporate them into American society. Still, the discontent over his proposal highlights growing criticism of Trump’s approach to immigration, which includes a proposal to build a wall between Mexico and the United States. Over the past few months, Trump has been criticized by prominent Hispanic journalists, his own (claimed) Presbyterian denomination, and even Pope Francis over his antagonistic stance towards immigrants — the latter of which said his plan to build as wall was “not Christian.”
Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric — along with several other GOP candidates — is also out-of-step with the American public: according to a 2015 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, 59 percent of Americans say undocumented immigrants should be allowed to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements. In the same poll, only 18 percent said they should be deported, whereas 19 percent said immigrants should be allowed to become permanent legal residents but not citizens.
Discontent over the issue could damage Trump’s general election prospects, since studies show that a Republican candidate will need to win at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to win the white house — a demographic that overwhelmingly supports immigration reform.