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Immigration opponents are far more passionate than supporters

Public support for immigration is increasing. Can that push Congress to act?

- July 13, 2022

Last month, at least 53 migrants were found dead in an abandoned truck in San Antonio — one of the deadliest smuggling events in modern U.S. history. For many, this tragedy exposes the human costs of the country’s harsh restrictions on legal immigration.

Some polls have recently reported that Americans have grown friendlier to immigration over the past decades. For the first time since Gallup started polling on the issue almost 60 years ago, more people say immigration should be increased rather than decreased. That’s a shift from 7 percent in favor of increases and 33 percent in favor of decreases in 1965, with the 2020 numbers suggesting that 34 percent favor increases and 28 percent favor decreases.

But U.S. immigration attitudes may not have warmed as much as those numbers suggest. My new research shows that predominantly Democratic voters who support immigration simply do not see the issue as important as do the predominantly Republican voters who oppose it. As a result, opponents remain more politically influential than supporters.

Americans’ support for immigration is even weaker than it seems

It’s true that a greater proportion of Americans are willing to tell pollsters that they support immigration than before. But that support is still soft.

First, the aggregate change does not necessarily mean that individuals have changed their minds on the issue. My research with political scientists Dillon Laaker and Cassidy Reller looks at longitudinal survey data, in which the same respondents were interviewed over a decade. There we found much greater stability in individuals’ immigration attitudes. These attitudes form early in life and reflect deep-seated psychological traits such as openness to experience or ethnocentrism. In other words, if immigration public opinion changes in any significant way, it happens gradually, as older people give way to younger generations with different attitudes.

Second, some scholars find that those people who agree to participate in surveys tend to be more liberal and more ideologically extreme than the general population. People’s refusal to participate in public opinion surveys has only increased over the past decades. As a result, recent polls may be overestimating increases in pro-immigration views.

But even if more people do favor immigration, they may care about this issue less than those who oppose it — and therefore have less influence on public policy.

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How I did my research

When individuals consider an issue to be personally important, they care more about it than other issues. They are more likely to think frequently and deeply about it, seek information, contact politicians and vote based on their views. Some scholars have recently tried to examine the immigration issue’s importance in public opinion, but high-quality data has often been lacking. I set out to identify all available nationally representative surveys with relevant questions about both immigration views and their importance.

According to my analysis of American National Election Studies, Voter Study Group, and Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics data, those who oppose immigration feel more strongly about the issue and are more likely to consider it as both personally and nationally important than those who support it. That’s especially true when the news media are paying more attention to the issue.

In 2012, when immigration was not discussed much nationally, only 4 percent of those who wanted to decrease immigration considered it the most important problem facing their country. Among those who wanted to increase immigration, the number was 2 percent, a difference barely outside the poll’s margin of error. After Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election, however, 27 percent of immigration opponents considered it the most important issue compared with only 12 percent of immigration supporters, a sizable 9-percentage-point difference. In 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic overwhelmed the media’s attention and discussion of immigration decreased again, 17 percent of opponents said so compared with 12 percent of supporters — a statistically significant difference of 5 percentage points.

Another fruitful way to look at this data is to calculate what proportion of the public considers immigration their most important issue, on either side. Doing that, even in the most pro-immigration year recorded in polling history in 2020, I found that possibly fewer Americans considered supporting than opposing immigration the most important issue, 4 to 5 percent respectively. In 2016, when Trump was campaigning on attacking immigration, only 2 percent of Americans considered increasing immigration to be important — while the whopping 12 percent considered decreasing immigration to be the most important issue facing the country.

I find similar results across virtually all other available surveys, various questions about immigration issue importance, and even countries outside the United States. Those who want to decrease immigration routinely think of it as the most important issue facing the country. I could not find any major surveys in which more voters wanted to increase immigration and thought it was more important than other issues.

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Immigration opponents care more about the issue than immigration supporters

Even though more Americans are telling pollsters that they support immigration, lawmakers hesitate to tackle immigration policy in ways that would make it easier to enter the United States. My research suggests that they’re right to be cautious. Americans who oppose immigration are far more engaged and active on the issue than are immigration supporters.

In fact, given the increased national attention to immigration over the past decades, the number of people who actively oppose immigration has actually increased.

Further, most political events that increase media attention to immigration will be more likely to activate those who oppose than those who support it. Unless pro-immigration advocates figure out a reliable way to get sympathetic voters to consider this important, they’re likely to face more pushback than support when trying to change policy. Even 53 people dead may not affect that disadvantage.

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Alexander Kustov (@akoustov) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.