Credit: Ponomariova_Maria

Why immigration is a losing issue for Trump

Ali Noorani
4 min readOct 22, 2020


Twelve days till the election and what topic is missing from the conversation? Immigration.

Think about where we were four years ago. Candidate Trump would not go a rally, much less a tweetstorm, without vilifying immigrants, refugees and immigration.

Sure, these days Trump breaks out the old tropes from time to time. But something has changed. Turns out his voters aren’t quite as exercised about immigration as he expected.

The Public Religion Research Institute’s new American Values Survey brings the change into stark relief.

In their 2016 American Values Survey, PRRI found that “[n]o issue is viewed by more Americans as important today than terrorism, with seven in ten (70%) saying it is a critical issue to them personally.” And, back then, just over four in ten Americans said immigration (44%) was an issue of critical importance.

The conflation was there for the conflating.

In 2020, terrorism as a defining issue plummeted to 45%, with the coronavirus pandemic (60%) leading the list. And, amid stories of skilled immigrants picking crops and caring for the sick, only one-third of Americans see immigration as an issue of critical importance.

With more than 220,000 Americans killed by COVID-19 and millions of people out of work, the change in priorities make sense.

You would think the Trump administration’s slashing of legal immigration, 400+ immigration-related executive actions (including, by our count, 48 policy changes during the pandemic alone), separation of thousands of families (with 545 children still without their parents) and ramped up enforcement at the border and interior would have the president taking a victory lap.

But again, the 2020 American Values Survey puts him in a bind: “Large majorities of those who identify as Republican, independent, and Democrat view immigrants as hardworking (79%, 89%, and 89%, respectively) and as having strong family values 76%, 83%, and 89%, respectively).”

Oh, and majorities of all religious groups support allowing undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship, including 58% of white evangelical Protestants.

It is a victory lap with no fans.

Tonight, in the final presidential debate, immigration still is not an official topic, but President Trump and Vice President Biden will be asked to tackle national security. If he sticks to form, Trump will attempt to tie immigrants to national security threats.

That’s so 2016.

Vice President Biden has an opportunity to appeal to the Americans across the spectrum who see, in their immigrant neighbors, common values and a shared American identity. He should drive home this truth: Our nation’s security — physical, economic and healthwise — depends on immigrants and immigration now more than ever.

Take Medal of Honor recipients, more than 20 percent of whom are foreign-born at a time when the Army is struggling to recruit new members. Take recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, who say that protection from deportation makes them less afraid of law enforcement and more likely to report crimes.

Most crucially right now, immigrants are standing shoulder to shoulder with all native-born Americans as we face the deadliest pandemic in a century, proving that this country is stronger when we work together.

Immigrants represent 17 percent of the health care workforce overall. They are 24 percent of direct-care workers in nursing, psychiatric and home health aides; and 28 percent of highly skilled professionals including physicians and surgeons.

These numbers become all the more consequential in the context of America’s shrinking skilled health care workforce: the country is expected to experience a shortage of as many as 139,000 physicians by 2033, per the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Immigrants are also feeding the country amid COVID, with about 2.1 million continuing to grow, harvest, process, and sell food here in the United States. As COVID threatens to disrupt the nation’s supply chains, 22 percent of workers in the food supply chain are foreign-born — including 76 percent of all farmworkers and 42 percent of food packers.

Our economic recovery will rely on immigrants. Research shows that across all industries, every temporary foreign worker creates an average of five to 7.5 new domestic jobs. What’s more, merely a one percent increase in the number of foreign workers in science, technology, engineering and math can lead to a seven to eight percent boost in wages for native-born American workers.

No comprehensive national security plan, including an effective COVID-19 response, is complete without an approach that embraces our critical immigrant neighbors. A reformed legal immigration system will help this country better navigate and ultimately recovery from this pandemic and further secure our standing on the global stage. We must embrace immigrants who are contributing to our response in ways that support all American workers and families.

Whether President Trump understands this or not, the majority of Americans do.



Ali Noorani

President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.