Posted on July 27, 2004

Americans Divided on Immigration

Lydia Saad, Gallup News Service, July 22, 2004

While public opinion of immigration has become less negative than it was in the first year or so after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, it has still not returned to the more positive level seen between 1999 and 2001. In that period, more Americans generally thought immigration should be maintained or increased rather than decreased. Gallup’s latest data on immigration, collected as part of the annual Minority Rights and Relations poll, finds only 14% of Americans wanting to see immigration increased; another 33% want it kept at the present level while 49% want it decreased.

At the same time, the current figures are not nearly as negative as those seen in the early 1990s, when immigrants were widely viewed as a threat to American workers in tough economic times. Gallup’s lowest measures of support for immigration appeared in July 1993 and June 1995, when 65% wanted a decrease.

Combining the percentage of Americans in support of maintaining or increasing immigration, and contrasting this with the percentage favoring a decrease in immigration, the following graph shows the historical shifts on this measure. The percentage favoring a reduction in immigration rose between 1965 and 1993, and then leveled off at about 65% in 1995. This lasted until the late 1990s, when Gallup recorded a reversal. In 1999, the majority of Americans felt immigration should be maintained or increased, and this majority actually grew larger until the 9/11 attacks occurred. A sharp and sudden change occurred between June and October 2001, spanning the 9/11 attacks, and once again more Americans wanted to curtail immigration. These feelings have since tempered somewhat, but even today, the public tilts in favor of less immigration: 49% favor a decrease, while 47% favor an increase or maintaining the current level.

The fact that Saudis and other Arabs living in the United States conducted the 9/11 terrorist attacks gave Americans a new reason to be wary of immigration. Historically, however, immigration views have tended to be linked with economics. As the following graph shows, prior to 2001, support for increased immigration was low when the percentage giving high marks to the economy was low. The increase in support for immigration seen in 1999 coincided with an increase in positive perceptions of the economy.

Given the generally negative ratings of the economy today—only 35% consider the economy “excellent” or “good,” while 62% call it “only fair” or “poor”—the economy certainly can’t be helping the pro-immigrant cause recover from the damage that 9/11 did.

Close to Half the Public Thinks Immigrants Worsen Crime, Taxes

Another finding in the Minority Rights and Relations poll paints a more detailed picture of Americans’ perceptions of immigrants, and suggests economics continues to be a factor in negative attitudes toward immigration.

Gallup asked respondents to rate the impact immigrants have on six different aspects of life in the United States. In all but one dimension, more Americans think that immigrants make the situation worse rather than better.

This is especially true with respect to taxes and crime, on which close to half the public thinks immigrants make the situation worse. Immigrants are also viewed more negatively than positively in the areas of the overall economy, job opportunities, and social and moral values.

It is only with respect to “food, music, and the arts” that Americans are relatively positive: 44% of Americans believe immigrants make these aspects of the culture better, compared with 10% who believe immigrants make these worse—yielding a “net positive” effect of +34 percentage points. (The remaining 42% say immigrants don’t have much effect on this aspect of life in the United States.)