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Mellman: Refugee redux

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For just about the first time in history, a majority of Americans favor allowing meaningful numbers of refugees into the country — and we may have President Trump to thank for it.

Last week, I lamented the rather depressing evidence of our hardened hearts in times past: whether it was children during the Holocaust, or survivors afterward, or in the wake of the Vietnam War, or Cubans escaping Castro’s regime, majorities of Americans opposed allowing refugees into our country.

{mosads}Until last week.

A CNN/ORC poll conducted Jan. 31 to Feb. 2 found 55 percent favoring “allowing refugees from Syria to seek asylum in the United States,” with a 45 percent minority opposed.

That’s quite a turnaround.

The same pollster asked a similar question at the end of November 2015. Then, just 38 percent of Americans supported allowing Syrian refugees into the country, while 61 percent stood opposed.

That represents a 17-point increase in support for admitting Syrian refugees and a 16-point decline in opposition.

CNN was hardly alone in finding earlier opposition to welcoming Syrians into this country who were fleeing war in their own.

In December 2015, Quinnipiac also uncovered a majority opposed to permitting Syrian refugees to enter the U.S.

A month earlier, an NBC News/SurveyMonkey online poll reported 56 percent of Americans disapproving of allowing more migrants fleeing violence in Syria into the country, while 41 percent approved.

By June 2016, resistance had, if anything, increased. Then, only 36 percent favored accepting Syrian refugees, according to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey.

Why the recent change of heart?

A generous reading would suggest the horror of the war in Syria was brought home to Americans through heart-rending pictures that captured our nation’s attention.

In August 2016, photos and a video of a 5-year-old with a haunted expression, covered in dust and blood, went viral, receiving 32 million views within a few days of being posted.

Of course, the viral photo of the 3-year-old drowned Syrian boy precipitated a similar outcry a year before, without altering public views.

Perhaps the combination succeeded where the single image had not.

It is equally likely, however, that Trump unwittingly helped spur this change, in one — or both — of two ways.

I’ve written before about the team nature of our politics. When you are on the Trump team, you not only like Trump, but also just about everything he says and does, and when you are on the anti-Trump team, you oppose what he is for and support what he opposes.

While it’s only suggestive, it is worth noting that in the latest CNN/ORC poll, 67 percent of those identified as “Trump supporters” do not want  to allow Syrians into the U.S., compared to just 28 percent of nonsupporters — a result consistent with, but necessarily dispositive, of Americans choosing teams and following or opposing their leaders.

If Americans did not change their minds in direct response to Trump’s advocacy, it’s at least likely that the attention he has drawn to the issue helped focus people’s attention.

There’s no doubt the president’s latest moves on immigration have become unpopular. In the same CNN poll, Americans opposed his executive order on refugees and immigration by a 6-point margin, while, in another stunning turnaround, 60 percent opposed a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. More now disapprove of Trump’s performance on immigration than on any other issue.

A CBS survey reported a similar 6-point advantage for opponents of the president’s executive order, while Gallup pegged the margin of opposition at 13 points.

The overwhelming evidence of poor planning and clumsy implementation on the refugee ban could well have further increased opposition.

Whatever the reason, though, we can celebrate the revival of America’s compassion.

It’s just a shame we don’t have a president as good as the American people. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years.

The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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