January 17, 2016: American Attitudes Towards Immigration

A 2015 report by National Academics of Sciences, titled  "The Integration of Immigrants on American Society", shows that an important but misunderstood component of immigrant integration is native born attitudes toward immigration and immigrants. Immigration has been hotly debated in American elections and in the media, and based on these debates, one might think that Americans are deeply concerned with the issue and that many, perhaps even the majority, are opposed to immigration. Polling data suggest that this is not the case: most Americans assess immigration positively. 

Polling results show that an increasing number of Americans (57 percent in 2005, up from 37 percent in 1993) think that immigrants contribute to the United States, and half feel that immigrants pay their fair share of taxes. Yet this is counterbalanced by the significant proportion, 42 percent, who think immigrants cost taxpayers too much. The majority of Americans do not believe that recent immigrants take jobs away from U.S. citizens, and they believe that the jobs immigrants take are ones that Americans do not want. When asked specifically about immigration and whether illegal or legal immigration is a bigger problem, respondents in a 2006 Pew survey were much more likely to say that it was illegal immigration (60%) than legal immigration (4%), with 22 percent saying both were of equal importance and 11 percent saying neither.

More recent polling data from 1999-2014 show that the dominant view of the public about the desired level of immigration is for a decrease, followed closely by maintaining it at current levels. However, support for increasing immigration levels has been rising over the last 15 years. Not surprisingly, immigrants are more favorable toward maintaining current levels of immigration than are the native-born. Only 17 percent of the foreignborn, compared to 60 percent of the native-born, told pollsters in 2014 that immigrant levels should be decreased. 

In general, most Americans do not think immigration is as important as many other issues facing the country. From 1994 to 2014, immigration is mentioned as the most important issue facing the country today by only about 1 percent to 3 percent of Americans. By contrast, the economy, unemployment, and health care consistently receive higher mentions. Even at times when immigration reform is very much in the news and high on legislators’ agenda; it is not the top issue for the vast majority of Americans. 

So even though immigration is rarely mentioned as an important policy issue by the American public, and despite consistent majority support for legalization of the undocumented, immigration remains a contentious topic. As past research has shown, this level of heightened attention and polarization on immigration is evident more among party activists than among the general electorate and is often the result of agenda-setting and mobilization by key media personalities and political actors, rather than emerging from widespread popular sentiment.

Concern about immigration is also fueled by misconceptions about immigrants and the process of integration. Americans have been found to overestimate the size of the non-white population; to erroneously believe that immigrants commit more crime than natives; and to worry that immigrants and their children are not learning English. A sense of cultural threat to national identity and culture, rooted in a worry about integration, therefore seems to underly many Americans worries about immigration.