WASHINGTON (AP) — Where immigrants are concerned, James Wright is OK with people who are here legally, as well as illegally — if they haven't committed crimes. But turn the talk specifically to the risks and benefits of admitting refugees to the U.S., and the New Jersey resident gives a fraught sigh.
"It's hard not to be conflicted," said Wright, 26, an independent who supports President Donald Trump's proposed travel ban on certain foreigners. "By no means do I want to be cruel and keep people out who need a safe place. But we have to have a better system of thoroughly finding out who they are."
Wright is part of a group of Americans a new survey suggests are making distinctions between legal immigrants who choose to be here and refugees — who are legal immigrants, too — fleeing persecution in their home countries. A new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research reflects that divide, with two-thirds of the respondents saying the benefits of legal immigration generally outweigh the risks. But just over half — 52 percent — say refugees pose a great enough risk to further limit their entry into the United States.
Interviews with some of the poll's participants suggest the distinction may be one of perception in an age of religious and politically inspired violence and 4.8 million refugees fleeing war-scarred Syria.
"Sometimes the vetting might not be quality," said Randall Bagwell, 33, a Republican from of San Antonio, Texas, the state second to California in settling refugees between Oct. 1 and Jan. 31, according to the State Department. "Nobody can do quality control when they're just reacting immediately."
President Donald Trump has long linked tougher immigration limits to a safer country, and on Monday signed a new travel ban that, in part, will suspend refugee travel to the U.S. for four months except for those already on their way to the United States. The new order, which takes effect on March 16, will impose a 90-day ban on entry to the United States for people from Sudan, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia and Yemen — all Muslim-majority nations — who are seeking new visas. It was Trump's second effort at a travel ban. The first was blocked by the courts.
Also reflecting his hard line, Trump last week announced to Congress a new office to aid Americans and their families who are victims of immigrant violence. That's despite years of studies that have shown that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than U.S.-born people.
Much of Trump's candidacy and young presidency has been powered by the idea that he will protect Americans from "bad dudes" who want to come here, issuing a mix of tough, if vague, policy — from "extreme vetting" to the travel ban, a border wall with Mexico and more.
Americans report conflicting feelings about immigrants just over six weeks into his presidency, the poll suggests. On the one hand, Americans see refugees as a risk apart from other legal immigrants, with a third of Democrats, and 8 in 10 Republicans, say the risks are great enough to place more limits on refugees admitted to the U.S. Despite those fears, Americans still see legal immigration generally as a boon, the poll shows. More than 6 in 10 say a major benefit of legal immigration is that it enhances the reputation of the United States as a land of opportunity.
The good and bad of immigration has long been a painful and intensifying national debate. Trump has shown some flexibility — or inconsistency, depending on one's viewpoint — on his approach. For example, Iraq is no longer on the list of countries whose people are banned. Officials from the Pentagon and State Department had urged the White House to reconsider given Iraq's key role in fighting the Islamic State group. Also, the new order does not subject Syrians to an indefinite travel ban, as did the original.
Trump also has minimized talk of deporting all of the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally and suggested that he could be open to comprehensive immigration reform. That sparked both interest and skepticism on Capitol Hill, where a solution has stymied Congress for years.
But Trump's warnings about refugees in particular apparently have stuck in the American consciousness, according to the poll.
Refugees entering the U.S. undergo rigorous background checks, including a search of government databases that list people suspected of having ties to terrorist groups. Processing of refugees can take up to two years — and usually longer for those coming from Syria. After a year in the U.S., refugees are required to check in and obtain green cards. But U.S. officials have acknowledged that information on people coming from Syria, in particular, may be limited.
Mandy Gibson, 37, sees the benefits of admitting legal immigrants — but isn't so sure about refugees.
"Maybe it's the media. They are making refugees sound like they aren't legal immigrants and I don't necessarily understand, but they are different to me," said Gibson, who works in a Greensboro, North Carolina, grocery store. Either way, she said, "anybody who is coming from countries that have ISIS really should have a very thorough background check."
The AP-NORC poll of 1,004 adults was conducted Feb. 16-20, using a sample drawn from NORC's probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.