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“It could be 3 million, it could be 30 million”: Quantitative misperceptions about undocumented immigration and immigration attitudes in the Trump era

“Podrían ser 3 millones, podrían ser 30 millones”: Las percepciones cuantitativas erróneas sobre la inmigración indocumentada y las actitudes hacia la migración en la era de Trump


Recent changes in the sociopolitical US landscape calls for the examination of the level of quantitative misperception about undocumented immigration and its connection with immigration attitudes. Nationally representative survey data are used to analyze whether being misinformed about the proportion of US immigrants that are undocumented in 2015 is linked with abstract immigration attitudes and four immigration policy options in 2016. The results reveal that people who overestimated undocumented immigration—a common misperception—are more likely to report that all immigrants present symbolic threats to the country than are their accurately informed peers. Consistent with the especially high salience of the US–Mexico wall in this period, overestimators also place more importance on building the wall but not on other policy options. These findings have important theoretical and real-world implications, given the current social and political context and spillover effects on Latinx and other racialized communities.


Cambios recientes en el panorama sociopolítico de los Estados Unidos exigen un análisis del nivel de percepciones cuantitativas erróneas sobre la inmigración indocumentada y su relación con las actitudes hacia la migración. Se utilizaron datos de encuestas representativas de la nación para analizar si el hecho de estar mal informado sobre la proporción de los inmigrantes de EE.UU. con estatus indocumentado en 2015 se vincula a las actitudes migratorias abstractas y a cuatro opciones de política migratoria en 2016. Los resultados revelan que las personas que sobreestimaron la inmigración indocumentada (una percepción errónea común) tienen más probabilidades que sus pares mejor informados de reportar que todos los inmigrantes representan riesgos simbólicos para el país. Las personas que sobrestimaron también dan mayor importancia a la construcción del muro entre EE.UU. y México pero no a otras opciones de políticas, lo cual es congruente con la prominencia especialmente del muro durante ese periodo. Estos hallazgos tienen implicaciones importantes teóricas y del mundo real, dado el contexto sociopolítico actual y los efectos colaterales en la comunidad latina y otras poblaciones racializadas.

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  1. Despite a common characterization of legal status as an individual-level characteristic, it is US immigration policy that determines immigrants’ eligibility for citizenship and the modes of immigrant entry; as such, legal status is a socially constructed and racialized category that intersects with other social categories to shape human experience (e.g., Golash-Boza and Hondagneu-Sotelo 2012; Menjívar and Abrego 2012).

  2. The paucity of analyses based on longitudinal data is cited as a persistent limitation of all non-experimental research on immigration attitudes (e.g., Hainmueller and Hopkins 2014, p. 243), and scholars point to panel-based designs as a crucial next step for immigration attitudes research (Ceobanu and Escandell 2010; Hainmueller and Hopkins 2014).

  3. The term Hispanic is used here to align with terminology used in the source data or by an interlocutor. In all other cases, the term Latinx is used to avoid binary constructions of gender present in terms such as Latino (Deckard et al. 2020). Latinx people can be of any race.

  4. Although inconsistent with the fact that nearly two-thirds of all Latinx peoples are US born (Noe-Bustamante and Flores 2019), this matches how Mexicans and other Latinx communities have been racialized in the country (e.g., Chavez 2013; Molina 2014; Perea 1997a).

  5. Herda’s (2018) dependent variable, an index about “willingness to exclude immigrants,” combines responses to whether respondents would support or oppose allowing immigrants into their country to avoid poverty, different types of persecution, harm from armed conflict, and the effects of natural disasters (p. 7).

  6. Their measure combines responses to five questions regarding which polices toward unauthorized immigration respondents preferred (Hopkins et al. 2019).

  7. See the “Appendix” for more information about the sources of Trump’s speeches ( and tweets (Trump Twitter Archive).

  8. In an August 2016 speech, he said: “We should only admit into this country those who share our values and respect our people. In the Cold War, we had an ideological screening test. The time is overdue to develop a new screening test for the threats we face today. I call it extreme vetting” (15 August 2016, Youngstown, OH).

  9. Flores (2018) finds that the effect of Trump’s negative immigration rhetoric on immigration attitudes dissipates after several days, in part explaining the repetition of themes and framing in Trump’s Twitter, speeches, and other communications.

  10. Instead, he referred to amnesty to ridicule other presidential candidates, such as in this 2015 speech: “[Marco] Rubio is weak, weak on illegal immigration, weak on the amnesty, wants everybody to have amnesty. Can’t do it” (14 November 2015, Beaumont, TX).

  11. He mentioned “dreamers,” undocumented youth who migrated with their parents as children, only three times in speeches in 2015–2016, and always in denigrating ways. For example, in a 24 August 2016 speech in Jackson, Mississippi, Trump said, “Where is the sanctuary for American children? Where is that sanctuary? The dreamers we never talk about are the young Americans. Why aren’t young Americans dreamers also? I want my dreamers to be young Americans.” In a handful of 2016 campaign speeches, he mentioned wanting to “terminate every single illegal Obama executive order” (27 October 2016, Geneva, OH), but he did not identify Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order by name in speeches until 2017.

  12. Trump’s tweets or retweets referred explicitly to the “border” 93 times in 2015–2016; in 69 of those times, he didn’t mention the word wall, such as in a 19 June 2015 tweet: “Druggies, drug dealers, rapists and killers are coming across the southern border. When will the US get smart and stop this travesty?”.

  13. The federal government has used the term “criminal alien” since at least 2008, when it used the term in describing the “Secure Communities” program (Menjívar and Abrego 2012). A keyword search of Trump’s tweets and recorded videos of his speeches shows that he first uses terms such as “criminal alien” and “illegal criminal immigrants” in 2016.

  14. See the “Appendix” for keyword search results in Trump’s speeches and Twitter.

  15. Two individual items used in the creation of the news knowledge variable from Wave 10 have the most missing data in the analyses, less than 14% missing.

  16. Gravelle (2018) reports overall stability in public opinion about the wall, irrespective of wording differences in surveys (e.g., “building a fence” or “building a wall”).

  17. See the “Appendix” for the complete results.

  18. For example, a keyword search of “Hispanics here legally” in shows that this phrase appears 10 times in Trump’s speeches in 2015–2016. Trump makes this explicit association through claims such as “Everyone’s shocked because the Hispanics that are here legally, those people, they want me—they know I’m going to bring jobs and everything else. They don’t want people pouring in” (27 October 2015, Sioux City, IA, speech).


  20. Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015, which likely explains why there are fewer “references”/speech segments in 2015 than 2016.

  21. To understand more about Trump’s communications regarding undocumented immigrants more generally, keyword searches of different labels for undocumented immigrants also were carried out, such as undocumented, unauthorized, alien, and illegal immig* (references to illegal and immigrants/immigration/immigrating). Illegal immig* is Trump’s preferred term during this period for undocumented immigrants. In a 2015 speech, he explained his preferences for the term “illegal” “It’s cause, you know, they now they like to use the word undocumented because it’s more political. I don’t use that word. Here, illegal immigrants, they came over illegally. Some are wonderful people and they have been here for a while they got to go out” He never used the term “unauthorized” in any speech in the database in 2015 or 2016, but used the term undocumented nine times in 2015–2016.

  22. Twitter Incorporated permanently suspended Donald Trump’s Twitter account (@realDonaldTrump) in January 2021 due to the “risk of further incitement of violence” (Twitter Inc 2021, As of this writing (March 2021), there are no direct URL links that show his tweets on his Twitter account.

  23. Diagnostics run for every model in this study indicate mean variance inflation factor for every model below 1.54, suggesting that multicollinearity is not a problem affecting the results. Alternative models were tested with other variables, such as including Republican/Republican leaner instead of conservatism, using respondents’ racial feeling thermometer for African Americans to tap into racial attitudes, and a four-item measure tapping into respondent’s views about immigrants making US society worse, and making things worse in the economy, crime, and social or moral values. The results regarding the relationship between overestimating undocumented migration and immigration attitudes are like those presented here. The exception is that, in some models, underestimating the relative size of undocumented migration is also connected with some immigration attitudes, such as reducing the perceived importance of increasing deportations.


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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Politics of Race, Immigration, and Ethnicity Consortium (PRIEC) Meeting, Arizona State University, in January 2019. I am grateful to Kamila Alexander, Amada Armenta, Cynthia Feliciano, Glenda Flores, Nadia Kim, Francisco Pedraza, Connor Sheehan, PRIEC participants, two anonymous reviewers and the editor for feedback on this paper, and to Elizabeth Burleson for research assistance. Pew Research Center bears no responsibility for the analyses or interpretations of the data presented here. The opinions expressed herein, including any implications for policy, are those of the author and not of Pew Research Center.

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Analyses of Trump’s rhetoric and attention to immigration policy options

A research assistant and the author carried out keyword searches of Trump’s speeches and Trump’s Twitter to examine whether Trump focused different levels of attention on the four immigration policy issues examined in this study. provides a searchable database of Trump’s video recorded speeches, providing both video and transcripts.Footnote 19 The corpus was created by limiting searches to those dated between January 1, 2015 and December 31, 2016, and to those using “video” as the media format (rather than text or social media) and “speech” as the type (rather than interviews, press conferences, or video logs). The database does not yield individual video recorded speeches matching the keyword search; what is reported are what labels “references,” a several-sentence-long paragraph-length segment of Trump’s speech, with a transcript and a link to the recorded video. As these are segments of a longer speech, a term might be mentioned several times, leading to yielding multiple segments that are part of the same speech. It is not possible to easily download the keyword searches from into Excel to count only the number of speeches rather than speech segments. Although does not indicate how many individual speeches or speech segments are in the database for 2015–2016, it is possible to approximate a denominator for the “references”/speech segments. For example, a keyword search of for how many speech segments occur in which Trump uses the word “I” shows 37,578 references in 2015–2016, with 5578 speech segments in 2015 and 32,000 segments in 2016.Footnote 20

Table 4 identifies the search terms and common examples of segments from video recorded speeches in 2015–2016, the same years of the ATP survey data analyzed in the study. The search terms tap into the same four specific immigration policy priorities covered in the ATP survey and the outcome variables in the multivariate analyses.Footnote 21 The counts regarding the “Wall” and deport* (hereafter deportations), were relatively straightforward to collect. For more extensive searches and keywords used to identify Trump’s attention on and rhetoric about establishing a way for undocumented immigrants to legally remain and allowing undocumented youth to stay and apply for legal status, see Table 4. The term “amnesty” was one of the more common ways that he referred to whether undocumented immigrants would be allowed to stay, with keywords such as “dreamers” used to refer to undocumented youth much less commonly, as identified in an endnote in the manuscript. Speech segments identified in the keyword searches for undocumented immigrants/youth allowed to remain were read to examine whether Trump indicated support for these options.

Table 4 Description of keyword search of recorded video speech segments in, January 1, 2015–December 31, 2016

The Trump Twitter Archive provides a searchable list of Trump’s tweets and retweets.Footnote 22 The corpus was created by limiting searches to those items dated between 1 January 2015 and 31 December 2016 using the same keywords as used for the analysis of The archive indicates 11,749 tweets or retweets on his account in 2015–2016. Table 5 provides more information about the search terms and examples from the analysis of Trump’s Twitter.

Table 5 Description of keyword search of Trump’s tweets and retweets in the Trump Twitter Archive, January 1, 2015–December 31, 2016

Figures 1 and 2 report the raw results of these keyword counts from Trump’s recorded speeches and from his Twitter in 2015 and 2016. To identify whether keywords such as the “wall” were discussed more frequently than “deportations” or “amnesty,” χ2 tests were carried out that compare the proportions from and the Trump Twitter Archive separately. The numerators for the proportions are the absolute size number of segments or tweets/retweets and the denominators are approximated for (37,578 speech segments in 2015–2016) and are exact for Trump’s Twitter (11,749 tweets/retweets in 2015–2016). The results for the χ2 tests are provided in the manuscript.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Keyword search results in Trump speech segments, 2015–2016

Fig. 2
figure 2

Keyword search results in Trump’s Twitter, 2015–2016

Analyses of the relationship between quantitative misperceptions about undocumented immigration and immigration attitudes

Tables 6 and 7 provide the full set of regression results for the analyses presented in Tables 2 and 3.Footnote 23 The full set of results are consistent with the previous literature on immigration attitudes. Aside from the variables tapping into misperceptions about the proportion of immigrants that are undocumented younger respondents, those with more education, women, and less conservative people are less likely to report that immigrants threaten American culture (Table 7) and to place more importance on building a wall or increasing deportations than their counterparts without these characteristics. Such people also are more likely to place more importance on finding ways for undocumented immigrants and undocumented youth to legally remain (Table 7). Note that the models for building a wall and increasing deportations are coded in the direction of reflecting more exclusionary policy positions (Models A and B), while the opposite is true for the models regarding undocumented immigrants and undocumented immigrant youth able to legally remain (Models C and D). The results also point to residual racial/ethnic differences between Hispanics and others, such as non-Hispanic Whites and, in some cases, African Americans and Asians, as well. Finally, respondents with higher values on the racial prejudice indicator are more likely to report that immigrants threaten American customs and values and attribute higher importance to building a wall and increasing deportations. National sociotropic concern about immigrants’ negative impacts on the economy is strongly associated with all five immigration attitudes.

Table 6 Logistic regression of immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values in 2016 on perceptions about the relative size of undocumented immigration and other variables in 2015
Table 7 Ordinary least squares regression of immigration policy preferences in 2016 on perceptions about the relative size of undocumented immigration and other variables in 2015

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Díaz McConnell, E. “It could be 3 million, it could be 30 million”: Quantitative misperceptions about undocumented immigration and immigration attitudes in the Trump era. Lat Stud 20, 242–279 (2022).

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  • Immigration attitudes
  • Undocumented migration
  • US demographics
  • Public opinion

Palabras clave

  • Actitudes hacia la inmigración
  • Inmigración indocumentada
  • Demografía de EE.UU
  • Opinión pública