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Sorry, Donald Trump — Americans Know The Difference Between Terrorists And Immigrants

Members of the Industrial Workers of the World Lehigh Valley branch rally outside the KidsPeace Broadway campus in support of the unaccompanied immigrant children who are temporarily housed there. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHRIS POST
Members of the Industrial Workers of the World Lehigh Valley branch rally outside the KidsPeace Broadway campus in support of the unaccompanied immigrant children who are temporarily housed there. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CHRIS POST

Americans don’t conflate concerns about terrorism with a fear of immigrants, according to a new survey conducted by the nonpartisan group Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) — challenging the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric coming from leading political figures in the aftermath of major terrorist events.

Terrorism concerns have increased about 18 percentage points over the past two years. In 2014, PRRI found that just 33 percent of Americans said they were worried about being affected by a terrorist attack. In the new survey, 51 percent of participants expressed concern that they or a family member could be a victim of terrorism.

At the same time, however, Americans haven’t embraced a harsher approach to immigrants. Roughly six in ten people told PRRI they support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants — a rate that has remained about the same since 2013, when the Senate approved a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have included this policy.

It’s notable that rising terrorism concerns “have no discernible effect” on the public attitudes about this aspect of immigration reform, according to Robert P. Jones, the CEO of PRRI and the author of The End of White Christian America.

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“What it suggests is that Americans are thinking about these two things somewhat separately. Their concerns about terrorism don’t translate 1:1 into attitudes about immigration policy,” Jones told ThinkProgress.

CREDIT: Sources: PRRI 2014 Post-election American values Survey; PRRI/RNS December 2015 Survey; PRRI/The Atlantic April 2016 Survey; PRRI/Brookings 2016 Immigration Survey.
CREDIT: Sources: PRRI 2014 Post-election American values Survey; PRRI/RNS December 2015 Survey; PRRI/The Atlantic April 2016 Survey; PRRI/Brookings 2016 Immigration Survey.

The findings present a contrast to the xenophobic policies championed by presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has been quick to blame immigrants following prominent terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and most recently Orlando.

Trump has called for deporting the entire undocumented population and banning Muslims from entering the United States. After the tragedy in Orlando, the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, it took less than 12 hours for Trump to start fearmongering about immigrants from the Middle East.

But most Americans don’t favor responding to terrorism concerns this way. Nearly six in ten Americans oppose placing a temporary ban on Muslims from entering the country and oppose building a border wall along the southern U.S. border with Mexico. And according to PRRI, 49 percent of Americans say the Democratic party best represents their views on immigration, compared to just 30 percent who say the same for Republicans.

That could be a problem for the Republican presidential candidate in the general election.

“The polls show why those things were winning strategies with Republican primary voters because they actually are quite popular among Republicans overall,” Jones said. “But the survey also suggests that Trump may run into a different kind of wall with independent voters and the public in general if he tries to bring in those issues as his leading issues into the general election… That’s not the winning profile of a general election.”

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PRRI’s survey also found that Americans’ perception of immigrants do not come from their personal experiences. Rather, they are informed by partisan ideology. Only about one in five Americans said that immigrants are changing their own local community and way of life, though nearly twice as many said immigrants are changing American society as a whole.

“It shows you that those perceptions at the national level are not driven by concrete examples on the ground,” Jones said.