What Americans Actually Think About Immigration

A poll of 40,000 people reveals that the areas of consensus are broader than many suspect.

Demonstrators from opposing sides of the immigration debate confront each other outside a Border Patrol Station in Murrieta, California. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

On immigration reform, rhetoric has often been out of sync with public opinion. Despite roughly three-quarters of Americans supporting the goals behind President Obama’s executive action on immigration, Obama’s new immigration plan has run into repeated Republican roadblocks. Republican governors in 26 states are suing the Obama administration, claiming that the order exceeded Obama’s authority. A Republican-appointed judge in Texas ruled in favor of the GOP governors and issued an injunction halting the policy’s implementation. Republican congressional leaders are pursuing a parallel track to block the implementation of the executive action. GOP lawmakers have set up a partisan showdown by attaching riders to the Department of Homeland Security funding bill that would defund Obama’s executive action on immigration. That bill, or a continuing resolution, must pass this week in order for DHS to remain open.

Today, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released the American Values Atlas, an online interactive map that provides an unprecedented portrait of America’s changing religious and political landscape. The AVA was designed to harness the power of big data—more than 40,000 telephone interviews—in order to provide a lens for understanding public opinion at levels not typically possible—such as at the state and metro level—or among smaller subgroups of Americans whose voices cannot be discerned in typical surveys. The AVA includes two measures in the area of immigration, one focused on policy, and the other on how immigrants are perceived. And the results are revealing.

A screenshot of the American Values Atlas (PRRI)

At the national level, the AVA finds solid support for a path to citizenship. When asked to identify the best approach for dealing with immigrants who are living in the country illegally, six in 10 Americans say there should be a way for such immigrants to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, while 17 percent say they should be allowed to become permanent legal residents but not citizens, and 19 percent say they should be identified and deported. Similarly, Americans hold fairly positive assessments of the economic impact of immigrants, with 55 percent saying that immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, while only 36 percent say that immigrants are a burden on the country because they take jobs, housing, and healthcare.

A quick look at the AVA state map reveals that there is a broad consensus across the country about immigration policy solutions. For example, majorities of the residents of all 50 states support a path to citizenship for qualified immigrants currently living in the U.S. illegally. Support for a path to citizenship is fairly consistent across states, ranging from almost two-thirds in Delaware, Kansas, and Vermont, to just over half in Louisiana and Wyoming.

There is a broader span of opinion across states regarding the economic impact of immigrants. At one end, 52 percent of West Virginians and Mississippians say immigrants are a burden because they take jobs, housing, and health care. At the other end, only 26 percent of California residents say immigrants are a burden on the country—while two-thirds of state residents report that immigrants strengthen the U.S. because of their hard work and talents.

A couple of key patterns are evident here. First, it is notable that there are only 5 states—West Virginia, Mississippi, Wyoming, Maine, and Alabama—in which half or more of residents say immigrants are a burden on the country.  Second, generally speaking, the states that tend to hold the most negative judgments about the economic impact of immigrants are not states that have historically had high levels of immigration. The reverse is also true. The four states in which residents hold the least concerns about immigrants being a burden are California, Hawaii, New Jersey, and New York—the historic centers of immigration in the country.

Because of the AVA’s large sample size, users are able to look at attitudes of demographic subgroups with an unprecedented degree of confidence. For example, the AVA demonstrates that the consensus across states on a path to citizenship largely holds across subgroups, including conservative subgroups.  Majorities of Republicans (52 percent), white evangelical Protestants (54 percent), seniors (56 percent), and non-Hispanic whites (59 percent) all support a path to citizenship for immigrants currently living in the country illegally.  Those numbers are based on interviews among random samples of over 9,400 Republicans, 7,900 white evangelical Protestants, 11,500 seniors, and 27,700 non-Hispanic white Americans.

This broad level of support is not always reflected in the polarized political debate, but not because of state-level differences. Residents of the 26 states bringing legal action against the Obama administration are only slightly more likely than average to say that immigrants are a burden on the country (39 percent vs. 36 percent respectively), and their support for a path to citizenship, at 59 percent, is statistically indistinguishable from the national average. These 26 states are set apart less by the views of their residents than the actions of their governors.

The pioneers of modern public opinion polling understood their craft as providing a vital democratic function in an increasingly fast-paced world.  George Gallup promised that surveys would “allow the American people to speak for themselves,” and Elmo Roper referred to scientific surveys as “democracy’s auxiliary ballot box.” The immigration debate is a clear example of a terrain on which the pitched partisan battles waged by politicians have obscured the broad agreements of their constituents. If the public opinion data from the AVA can serve to remind our leaders—and even ourselves—that there is common ground available on an important issue like immigration, it has come close to realizing some of its civic and civilizing potential.