An Immigrant Asks, “Should I Be Worried?”

A historian, a criminologist, and a pollster respond to a Masthead member’s questions and concerns.

Jose Luis Gonzalez

This article is a sample from The Masthead, the new membership program from The Atlantic. Members receive exclusive access to stories like this—while also supporting a sustainable future for independent journalism. Sign up now.   

As the debate around unauthorized immigration has intensified over the past year, Masthead member Victor has started to worry. Here’s what Victor shared with us:

Dear Masthead,

I am an immigrant from India, coming up on 30 years in this country. I have been a citizen for 10 years. The last year has been eye-opening. I have always felt like a foreigner, both due to my looks and my accent. But I have recently started to worry that the majority of the U.S. does not like people like me. We used to talk about the U.S. being a “country of immigrants”—now the first thing people think of when you say "immigrant" is "illegal immigrant.”

After reading about the Indian immigrant who was murdered in Olathe, Kansas, I am worried. Now that the rhetoric is turned up to 11, and many people think the presence of "illegals" is the main thing keeping wages low for working class citizens without college degrees, how many people feel negatively towards immigrants? Is this shift from "nation of immigrants" to "illegal immigrants" reversible? For the first time in my life, I am actually working on having an exit strategy.

Should I be this worried?


Victor seems to be asking three separate questions. First, how do Americans feel about immigrants? Second, how do those feelings resonate historically? And finally, am I safe? I reached out to a few experts—a historian, a criminologist, and a pollster—and asked them to respond to what Victor has to say.


A historian reminds us that the idea of a “nation of immigrants” has some big caveats.

Victor’s statement seems to be based on two assumptions. First, that this “nation of immigrants” has—until now—welcomed immigration, and, second, that American concerns about illegal immigration are a fairly recent development. The historical record challenges both assumptions.  

Immigration was encouraged throughout much of American history because people were needed to cultivate the land and to work in mills, factories, mines, railroads, and shipyards. But this doesn’t mean immigrants were always welcomed in the communities where they settled.

Efforts to restrict immigration and bar certain immigrants from citizenship began in the 1870s, when Congress passed a series of laws to limit the entrance of people considered undesirable and incapable of assimilating to American norms: Asians, southern and eastern Europeans, and others considered intellectually or morally deficient and “likely to become a public charge.”

The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, the most draconian of these laws, established numerical quotas based on national origin, created a border patrol, and eliminated the statute of limitation on deportations. This expanding restriction and surveillance of immigration led to a new way of thinking about immigrants—as legal or authorized versus illegal or unauthorized.

However, race and national origin also shaped how Americans came to view illegal status. Between 1924 and 1965, for example, Europeans who entered illegally were much more likely to be forgiven—and have their deportations suspended—than Mexicans and Asians.

The hard-fought achievements of America’s immigrants are rightfully celebrated, but these stories often downplay or obscure the many legal and social obstacles immigrants had to overcome in a nation that needed their labor and yet feared them.

This historical reality offers little consolation to those who are experiencing discrimination and violence today. One thing is clear, however: The political rhetoric coming out of Washington—and the willingness of many citizens to believe that rhetoric—reveals how little we actually understand about our immigration history.

—María Cristina García, Howard A. Newman professor of American studies, Cornell University


A criminologist warns that the media often blows anti-immigrant crimes out of proportion.

I would caution Victor not to fall prey to a media narrative that divides Americans and immigrants by race, religion, and ethnicity. He expressed concern for his safety as a South Asian of Indian descent, but, in reality, rates of crime against South Asians are very low.

FBI statistics show that, from 2001 to 2015, only 800 crimes were committed against a South Asian population of over 4.3 million. This equates to only 53 crimes a year nationally, or one crime for every 81,132 people. The rate of crimes committed against the South Asian population is far lower than the rate of crimes committed by Americans against other non-immigrant Americans.

—Dr. Ron Martinelli, criminologist and contributor to The Hill


A pollster says America’s volatile immigration politics don’t match up with its opinions. Even though Victor is a legal immigrant, Robert Jones says attitudes toward unauthorized immigrants are more favorable than the debate might lead you to believe.

Generally speaking, the anti-immigrant voices that have become louder in the media over the last two years do not represent the views of most Americans.

To take just a couple of examples, PRRI, the organization I lead, has been conducting national public opinion surveys since 2012 on the basic principles behind DACA, the proposed DREAM Act, and the broader issue of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Despite the volatility we see in public debates, American attitudes have held remarkably steady on these issues across the last five years.

Overall, Americans are sympathetic about the plight of young people who were brought to the U.S. unlawfully at a young age by their parents, and they favor allowing immigrants who are living in the country illegally a way to become citizens. For example, by a margin of more than two to one (66 percent favor, 29 percent oppose), Americans favor allowing illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to gain legal resident status if they join the military or go to college. This support includes majorities of Democrats (73 percent), independents (69 percent), and Republicans (53 percent). And as I noted in a piece for The Atlantic earlier this year, not even residents of the reddest states support deportation of undocumented immigrants as their preferred policy response.

When asked how the immigration system should deal with immigrants who are currently living in the country illegally, PRRI's 2016 study of over 40,000 people found 64 percent of Americans say we should allow them a way to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements. Another 15 percent say we should allow them a way to become permanent legal residents but not citizens. Only 16 percent of Americans, and only 28 percent of Republicans, say their preferred policy option is to identify and deport those who are living in the country without legal documentation.

Even in West Virginia, which President Trump won by 42 percentage points, only 29 percent favor deportation. In Oklahoma, which Trump won by 36 percentage points, only 20 percent favor deportation as their preferred policy solution. Although our national politics don’t often reflect it, public opinion polling demonstrates that most everyday Americans approach immigration issues animated less by anger and fear and more by pragmatism and compassion.

Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI and author of The End of White Christian America

This article is a sample from The Masthead, the new membership program from The Atlantic. Members receive exclusive access to stories like this—while also supporting a sustainable future for independent journalism. Sign up now.