Authored by Jeffrey Jones, via Gallup
- 27% identify immigration as the most important U.S. problem
- Surpasses record 23% naming the issue in June
- A small number of issues have ever eclipsed 27% mentions since 2001
After hitting a new high last month, mentions of immigration as the most important problem facing the U.S. increased further to 27% in July. Since Gallup began regularly recording mentions of the issue in 1993, immigration has been cited by an average of 6% of Americans, though it has been higher in recent years. There have been occasional, typically short-lived, spikes when major immigration events were occurring.
The July 1-12 poll was conducted as the U.S. government continues to struggle to handle the large number of Central American immigrants attempting to enter the U.S. via the U.S.-Mexico border. The issue was brought into sharper focus in early July when Democratic congressional leaders and Republican Vice President Mike Pence made separate trips to facilities that are holding the migrants as they await asylum hearings. While Republican and Democratic leaders’ assessments of the situation differed, both acknowledged overcrowded conditions and characterized the situation at the border as a crisis.
Republicans have typically been more likely than Democrats and independents to name immigration as the most important problem, and that is still the case. In the latest survey, 42% of Republicans, 20% of independents and 20% of Democrats mention immigration.
All political groups are more likely to mention immigration now than earlier this year. In March, when a 2019-low 16% of Americans identified immigration as the most important problem, 31% of Republicans, 14% of independents and 6% of Democrats did.
Immigration Now Top Overall Problem
Immigration now sits at the top of the “most important problem” list for just the fourth time in Gallup’s trend, having also done so in July 2014, July 2018 and November 2018. The issue edged out the government, which has been a fixture at or near the top of the list throughout the latter part of the Obama administration and the Trump administration.
Race relations or racism (7%) and healthcare (7%) are the only other two issues to receive as many as 5% of mentions this month.
Consistent with Americans’ positive evaluations of the U.S. economy, only 14% name an economic issue such as the economy in general, unemployment or the gap between the rich and poor. The historical low in mentions of economic issues as the most important problem is 12%, registered in February and in September 2018.
Only Five Other Issues Have Topped 27% Mentions Since 2001
Gallup has asked the “most important problem” question since 1939, and has done so on a monthly basis since March 2001. Over the past 19 years, only five other issues have been mentioned at some point by at least the 27% who named immigration this month. These include the economy in general, unemployment, the situation in Iraq, terrorism and the government.
Since 2001, the economy has met or exceeded the percentage naming immigration this month on 58 separate occasions, most recently in November 2012. This includes 58% naming the economy in November 2008 during the Great Recession and financial crisis, the highest percentage naming any issue over the past 19 years.
Unemployment has reached the 27% threshold 17 times since 2001, topping out at 39% in September 2011, when the U.S. unemployment rate was 9.0% and President Barack Obama was proposing a major jobs program.
The government has been cited by 27% or more of Americans as the most important problem six times, with the high of 35% coming in February of this year, shortly after the longest government shutdown in U.S. history ended.
During the height of the U.S. war with Iraq between 2003 and 2007, the situation in Iraq routinely ranked as the top problem facing the country. On 21 occasions, the percentage naming it was at least 27%, with a high of 38% in February 2007.
Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 46% of Americans named terrorism as the most important problem facing the country. Mentions of terrorism surpassed 27% on four other occasions between 2001 and 2002.
Americans’ concern about immigration has reached a high point in Gallup’s measurement of the issue, at least based on the percentage of U.S. adults who perceive the issue to be the most important problem facing the country. Dramatic images of overcrowded detention centers and acknowledgments from politicians of both political parties that the issue is a crisis have likely contributed to the rise in concern. And even as Democrats and Republicans continue to dispute the best way to address the situation, Congress has passed and President Donald Trump has signed legislation to spend over $4 billion in additional funds to address the situation at the border.
That recent law marked a rare instance when the parties found common ground on immigration since a bipartisan attempt to address the issue in the mid-2000s failed. Obama, who was unable to get a Republican-led Congress to pass immigration reform, resorted to executive orders to attempt to institute new immigration policies. Federal courts blocked that course of action. Immigration was arguably the top issue in Trump’s 2016 campaign, and he, too, has been unable to pass favored legislation on the issue, including the full amount of funding he sought to extend the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Many of his attempts to circumvent the legislative process have also been blocked by Congress and the courts.
As such, immigration is likely to remain a top issue for Americans, particularly at points when large numbers of immigrants or asylum seekers are attempting to enter the country illegally.