Do polls really show the public supports Abbott sending migrants to blue states?

The decisions by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to make a political point by transporting migrants to blue areas has forced a reckoning about how far is too far in the service of making that point.

To hear some on the right tell it, new polling vindicates the governors’ actions, showing that voters approve of what they’re doing.

But it’s not quite so simple.

The conservative National Review on Thursday shared a new poll it had obtained from a Republican pollster. The headline read: “Majority of Likely Voters Support Migrant Busing: Poll.” And in fact, it wasn’t just a majority; it was 63 percent.

But what exactly do those voters support? The question’s wording makes it less clear that this is definitely about transporting the migrants — and there are some key factors in the current controversy that aren’t considered as part of the question.

The poll prefaced its question by stating that Texas is sending “buses of immigrants to other states and sanctuary cities including Chicago, New York City and Washington D.C.” Then it asks: “Do you agree or disagree that sanctuary cities should have to share the burden of dealing with these illegals and not just the border states?”

The first note is on “illegals.” According to how proponents have described the programs, the migrant have been processed by immigration officials. Many of them appear to be asylum seekers awaiting their date in court. Republicans believe the asylum process is being abused, but casting these migrants as “illegals” is reductive at best, and of course, likely colors responses. (And some polls show most Americans support allowing migrants from Central America to seek asylum.)

The second point is that while the preamble poses the question in the context of Abbott’s busing program, the question isn’t explicitly about transporting people — it’s significantly broader. To disagree with the statement offered is to say that sanctuary cities shouldn’t have to “share the burden.”

The question also ignores that many places where migrants are being sent have large migrant and undocumented immigrant populations. That means, to the extent there is a “burden” to be “shared,” they’re already very much sharing it. (That language, like “illegals,” also likely impacts how people respond.)

The population of Washington, D.C. — one of the cities mentioned by the poll as a destination for the busing program — is 7 percent undocumented in its broader metro area, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center study. That ranked it in the top 10 percent of all metro areas and right alongside many in Texas. The New York and Chicago metro areas had lower percentages of undocumented immigrants (about 5 percent and 4 percent, respectively), but they still ranked in the top one-third.

In other words, the poll is not terribly instructive when it comes to whether people actually “support migrant busing.”

Luckily, there is other polling on the question. Like the poll above, it also focuses on Texas’s program rather than DeSantis’s. Unlike the poll above, it directly asks about the busing program and does so in a less leading manner.

The University of Texas at Austin poll, conducted before the controversy erupted last week, does suggest a program like this could garner public support — though not as much support as suggested by the other poll. It asked whether people support “paying to bus foreign migrants awaiting their asylum hearings to other parts of the country outside Texas?” So it deals with their actual status and the actual busing.

A slight majority — 52 percent — said they support that, while 35 percent opposed it. Among those who supported it are half of independents and more than 4 in 10 Hispanics.

That’s a better gauge of where things stand, with a couple caveats. The first is that this is a poll of a red state, where fighting illegal immigration is a big reason for the GOP’s long-standing (though recently somewhat diminished) dominance. The second and more important one is that even this question doesn’t quite get to the heart of the current issue.

Some Democrats and immigrant activists have objected to the program, full stop. But the biggest reason for opposition — and the crux of claims that this program might have broken the law — is the idea that the migrants were misled or coerced into participating. This has been the focus of criticisms from politicians like Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) and California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), and of the investigation by a sheriff in San Antonio-based Bexar County, Tex.

Indeed, there is evidence that some of the migrants willfully participated and were grateful to be transported to more welcoming places. And transporting such migrants across the country has been a goal of some asylum advocates. But Democrats, immigrant advocates and even some of the migrants themselves have suggested that people were misled.

The extent to which that’s ultimately substantiated will tell the tale of how this program is truly received by the public. If this was really about people being transported to places they wanted to go without any false pretenses, it’s not difficult to see why Texans — and possibly even Americans more broadly — might support it.

But to the extent the public sees these GOP governors using people as political pawns — an idea raised not just by the left but also by Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner this week — it could be a different story. And saying that these polls show the public definitely approves of these efforts is premature.

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