Revisiting Texas attitudes on immigration and border security as Abbott doubles down in McAllen with Donald Trump

As the Thanksgiving holiday and the expiration date of a fourth special session of the Texas Legislature draw near, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Republican legislative majority are close to enacting a new batch of legislation related to immigrants and border security that yet again push the boundaries of both the U.S. Constitution and the historical norms around the treatment of migrants and immigrants in the U.S.. Expect the new legal and rhetorical boundaries (or lack thereof) around “securing the border” to be on full display when Gov. Abbott and Donald Trump stage a joint visit to McAllen this weekend, where Abbott is expected to endorse Trump’s bid to return to the White House and the two are expected to discuss “future plans for curbing illegal immigration.”

Even as people who work in the Texas Capitol continue to obsess about the death match over school choice playing out in the legislature in the final days of the special session, it should be no surprise that Republicans from Trump and Abbott down to legislative backbenchers all view immigration and border security as their political lifelines after a bruising year of unprecedented political infighting. With the prospects of delivering an ESA/voucher/choice bill still too close to call amidst continued resistance in the Texas House, there's no denying the political logic of keeping immigration and border security on the legislative agenda, which sustain Republicans in both primary and general election campaigns more than any other policy issues.

An analysis we wrote in May remains mostly applicable to the current interlude at the Legislature:

“Years of UT/TxPP polling data attest to the fact that border security and immigration are never far from the minds of Republican voters (making the same true of Republican elected officials, none more so that Gov. Greg Abbott). One effect of this GOP two-stepping by incumbents and their constituents is that the increased spending for border security contained in both the House and Senate versions of their respective budget bills is one of the few major policy areas in which the two chambers and their leaders have not displayed major, public disagreements this session.” 

That consensus temporarily broke down during the escalation of hostilities between the House and Senate in the closing days of the third special session. Their failure to pass border legislation was shocking, even more so given its extreme provisions and, in some instances, likely violation of the U.S. Constitution. The pride-of-place of immigration and border measures on the Governor’s special session call seemed designed to remind fractious Republican legislators to set aside personal, institutional, and ideological differences on an issue in which the crystal clear attitudes of their base has repeatedly incentivized unity. 

The following discussion of results from the Texas Politics Project archive, updated from an earlier post in May as the regular session was ending, illustrates how the aggressive enforcement policies on the border being relentlessly expanded by the Republican majorities in both houses of the Texas Legislature align with deeply rooted attitudes among Republican voters in Texas. Abbott’s impending endorsement of Trump in an event staged at the border, and all but assured success of the major remaining immigration measures, (SB3, which awaits Abbott's signature, and SB4, which is also very likely to arrive soon on his desk), illustrate the political force of those issues in the Republican Party. (And, as ESA legislation continues to encounter intense opposition in the House, just how much more consequential than vouchers border and immigration sentiment is among the Republican electorate). 

Salience: Texas Republican voters have been focused on border security and immigration for a decade

Except for a brief blip during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, no less than 44% of Texas Republicans have said that immigration or border security is the most important problem facing the state of Texas in 36 surveys conducted between February 2015 and October of this year. And looking at the data, it’s hard not to see a pattern in which the summer kicks off increasing focus on the border, peaking near the end of the year in October polling. In October 2023 polling, 60% of GOP voters chose immigration and the border as the state’s most important problem.

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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%

When we asked voters to offer more specific opinions about what the legislature should be prioritizing this legislative session using an open-ended question format in which respondents could provide any priority they like, the plurality of Republicans in both February and April polling (49% and 43%, respectively) offered something to do with immigration or securing the border — with no other issue area coming anywhere close in terms of attention.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Immigration / Border security3%18%49%
Inflation / Cost of living8%6%7%
Gun control / Gun safety13%0%2%
The economy3%11%7%
Education8%5%4%
Energy / The electric grid6%3%2%
Health care7%5%1%
Property taxes3%2%7%
Abortion5%2%1%

Expanding state spending: attitudes on immigration overwhelm fiscal conservatism

In our August 2023 poll, support for increasing border security spending was almost universal among Texas Republicans. Asked how important it is for the legislature to accomplish a number of policy goals laid out by the state’s leadership in mid-regular session polling conducted in April, 63% of Texas Republicans said it was “extremely important” to increase funding for border security operations, with another 24% saying that it was “very important” (87% in total). In fact, only 3% of Republican voters combined said it was either “not very important” or “not important.” The share saying increased border security funding was very important (and the combined very and somewhat important ratings) were higher than for any of the 14 other priorities tested.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Extremely important15%24%63%
Very important18%23%24%
Somewhat important25%12%10%
Not very important16%6%2%
Not important23%21%1%
Don't know/No opinion3%13%0%

This result is largely unsurprising, given that Republicans have consistently registered disappointment with state level spending on border security operations, even as those same levels of spending have increased dramatically over the last several years, and even significantly within this calendar year. Most recently in August 2023 polling, 61% of Texas Republicans said that the state was spending “too little” on border security, with no fewer than 60% holding this position in three surveys conducted in 2023, despite the massive increase in spending levels over that same time period. Border security spending increased more than 40-fold between the FY 2008-2009 and FY 2022-2023 budgets, from $100.3 million to more than $4.4 billion, according to reporting based on Legislative Budget Board data. The 2024-2025 budget increased those expenditures to $5.1 billion, and legislation in the special sessions are expected to add another $1.5 billion.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Too much50%23%8%
About the right amount20%17%24%
Too little16%36%61%
Don't know/No opinion14%25%7%

Remembering the roots of GOP attitudes on immigration

We’ve written repeatedly about the roots of the salience and policy preferences of Republican voters when it comes to border security — they align with restrictive attitudes toward both legal and undocumented immigration, and toward a wariness of the states’ growing ethnic and racial diversity. These are important points to remember when watching any debate in Texas about immigration and the border, and especially in evaluating rhetoric that seeks to pinpoint the driving force behind GOP attitudes and policies as a straightforward response to law breaking by undocumented immigrants – or the conflation of different groups of migrants.

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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%

In nine UT/TXPP surveys conducted between February 2018 and August 2023, between 59% and 72% of Texas Republicans have said that the U.S. allows “too many” people to immigrate here legally. The time frame is important, as any response to these results that points to the COVID-19 pandemic as a reasonable motivator for restrictive attitudes towards legal immigration would have to explain their presence before the pandemic’s onset. During the same period, attitudes toward undocumented immigration to the U.S., not surprisingly, were even more negative. As recently as August, 2023, 83% of Texas Republicans agreed with the statement, "Undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States should be deported immediately."

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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%

The roots of these attitudes are many and complex, but several items in the UT/TXP poll point to both GOP attitudes about American identity, and also wariness of ongoing changes to the racial and ethnic composition of the state. Asked in August 2023 whether the state’s increasing racial and ethnic diversity (a fact with or without continued migration/immigration) is a cause optimism or a cause for concern, the majority of Republicans, 52%, said that they see these changes as a cause for concern, with another 28% failing to offer an opinion, and only 20% viewing these changes optimistically. This question has been asked 14 times since June 2019, and in all but one survey more Republican voters viewed these demographic changes negatively than viewed them positively.

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
A cause for optimism63%27%20%
A cause for concern23%38%52%
Don't know/No opinion14%35%28%

In a December 2022 UT/TXPP Poll exploring attitudes toward national identity, when asked how important a number of factors were to “being American,” a near majority (49%) of Republicans said it was either “extremely” (30%) or “very” (19%) important for a person to be born in the United States — with another 19% saying it was at least “somewhat important.”

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Extremely important20%16%30%
Very important13%20%19%
Somewhat important20%19%19%
Not very important18%14%16%
Not important26%25%13%
Don't know/No opinion2%6%2%

Republican voters’ history of favoring restrictive and punitive policies

The combination of the salience of border security and immigration, the prevalence of negative attitudes toward immigration both legal and illegal, and concerns about the implications of growing ethnic and racial diversity among Texas Republicans are also associated with support for increased enforcement of immigration laws, as well as support for restrictive if not punitive policies. Some examples spanning the last decade include:

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CategoryDemocratIndependentRepublican
Strongly support6%38%73%
Somewhat support12%13%15%
Somewhat oppose12%8%7%
Strongly oppose62%28%3%
Don't know/No opinion8%13%2%

GOP attitudes on immigration and border security are reflected in political support for executives and candidates

Republican campaigns in Texas have invoked the importance of border security fairly regularly for the last two decades, and have certainly met the market for such messages (and policies, in most cases) among Republican voters. Gov. Abbott’s successful reelection to a third term followed a winning campaign that in part attacked Beto O’Rourke as part and parcel of the alleged “open border” policy of the Biden Administration, even as O’Rourke attempted to redirect attention to Abbott’s policies.

UT/TXPP Polling has assessed Texans’ stated approval ratings of Gov. Abbott, President Joe Biden, and 2022 gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke’s handling of immigration and border security policy in the run-up to the 2022 election.

Republicans rated Gov. Abbott’s performance very highly, with “strong Republicans” particularly enthusiastic, in the October 2022 UT/Texas Politics Project Poll taken in the run-up to that election.

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CategoryLean RepublicanNot very strong RepublicanStrong Republican
Approve strongly49%38%72%
Approve somewhat41%35%21%
Neither approve nor disapprove6%11%2%
Disapprove somewhat3%3%1%
Disapprove strongly2%8%3%
Don't know0%5%1%

Not surprisingly, Republican ratings of President Biden were even more intensely negative in the same survey.

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CategoryLean RepublicanNot very strong RepublicanStrong Republican
Approve strongly0%3%4%
Approve somewhat8%5%4%
Neither approve nor disapprove2%6%3%
Disapprove somewhat1%15%2%
Disapprove strongly88%69%86%
Don't know1%2%0%

The mutual reinforcing effects of deeply rooted attitudes among Texas Republicans, and the determination of the Governor and his legislative allies to reward those attitudes with a no-holds-barred approach to state action on the border, funded by a sky’s-the-limit approach to spending on border security, informed border politics during the regular session, and have provided much-needed moments of Republican consensus in the divisive third and fourth special sessions held in the wake of the fractures opened up by the impeachment and subsequent acquittal of Ken Paxton. The final endgame of the wars ignited by the return of vouchers as a legislative issue this year isn’t yet evident, and probably won’t be until after the GOP primaries. But both the legislation passed in the latest special session and the politics of the 2024 presidential election on preview in McAllen this weekend illustrate the continuing power of immigration and border politics – and the attitudes among a majority of the Texas voters that fuel them.

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