HAMPTON, N.H. — Heading into the New Hampshire primaries, Hampton resident Linda McGrath knew which candidate would get her vote: former President Donald Trump. 

She held two signs outside a polling station in Hampton — one read “Secure Borders” and the other “No Wars.” McGrath said she is very concerned about U.S. national security.  

“The border is out of control,” McGrath said. “Millions and millions of illegals are pouring over the border and they’re overwhelming our hospitals. Trump had the border secure, and as soon as Biden got into office, he undid all of Trump’s policies.”

McGrath is referencing Biden’s decision to end the Trump-era immigration policy called Remain in Mexico, which returned asylum-seekers to Mexico until their court date in the U.S. 

McGrath is one of many New Hampshire voters who named border security a top reason for voting for Trump in the New Hampshire primary. According to a CNN exit poll, New Hampshire’s Republican primary voters largely cited immigration or the economy as their top issue in the election, with eight in 10 Trump supporters saying that undocumented immigrants should be deported. Trump defeated presidential hopeful Nikki Haley in the primary 54% to 43%. 

Andrew Smith, a professor of practice at the University of New Hampshire, said he is not surprised by the election results. 

Immigration at the border has consistently been a top concern for Republicans over the past several decades, according to Smith, who is also the director of the UNH Survey Center. However, Smith said that the issue has gained heightened visibility in recent years, in part because Trump made immigration the central issue of his 2016 campaign. Smith also noted that Republican governors in border states are now actively transporting migrants to sanctuary cities across the United States. 

“You’re starting to see the political pressure build for some sort of solution in Washington to a greater degree than was before,” Smith said.

Undocumented immigration is on the rise, according to data from the Cato Institute. In 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol had 1,659,206 encounters with undocumented immigrants along the southwest border. In 2023, that number grew to 2,045,838. 

Smith attributed this surge to the continued desire for cheap migrant labor, rather than the consequence of policies from the Trump or Biden administrations.

“America wants cheap labor and what is cheap labor for the United States is a goldmine for citizens of poor countries,” Smith said. “The difference is that the Trump administration made some visible attempts to try to slow that and stop it in its course. Those attempts were more for political consumption than being real, practical solutions.”

Dennis Noonan, a Hampton voter, said he is supporting Trump because he feels that he is the best candidate to tackle undocumented immigration, noting his effort to build a border wall in 2016. The Trump administration built 458 total miles of border barriers, the vast majority of which were in areas where some kind of barrier already existed, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data that was provided to U.S. News. The U.S.-Mexico border spans 1,951 miles. 

Noonan acknowledged that the border wall wasn’t largely effective in curbing undocumented immigration but said that he appreciates Trump’s efforts.

“Trump was handcuffed in just about every corner,” Noonan said. “He took every decision he made about funding from Congress, which was a Democrat-led Congress at the time, so he couldn’t really get a lot done. But I know he was supported by the border security.”

Ron Wilson, a New Hampshire voter, said he supported Trump over Haley because Trump already has a “proven record” over undocumented immigration.

“Trump shut the border down before and got everything under control,” Wilson said. “Haley hasn’t proven herself.”

Christopher Galdieri, a politics professor at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., said he believes that, for many voters, the concern over border security is more of a stand-in for social and racial-ethnic anxiety. The United States Census Bureau predicts that white Americans will comprise the racial minority in 2045 for the first time in U.S. history. 

“For a lot of voters, particularly in states that are not on the Southern border, immigration and border security are about much more than just immigration and border security,” Galdieri said. “They’re about changing demographics in the nation and of fear that they or their children will be left behind.”