« Itís the Corruption and Cronyism, Stupid | Main | Public Opinion on Stem Cell Research »

Public Opinion on Immigration

by Ruy Teixeira

Immigration is heating up as a political issue and, right now, Bush sports a very low 21 percent approval rating on the issue, with 53 percent disapproval, according to a recent CBS News poll. It is useful to consider how much public opinion is changing as the issue assumes more prominence. The answer is: not much; the basic structure of public opinion on immigration seems to be quite stable.

For example, in the CBS News poll, 51 percent say they want legal immigration decreased, compared to 30 percent who prefer the present level and 11 percent who think it should be increased. Thatís essentially the same result that CBS obtained in July. A 2004 CBS poll found somewhat more support for immigration, a 2001 poll found somewhat less and a 1996 poll found about the same level. So, while thereís some fluctuation over time, thereís not much of a long-term trend. This is a pattern that applies to most other general questions about immigration as well.

The CBS poll also finds three-quarters saying that government is ďnot doing enoughĒ to keep illegal immigrants from crossing into the US, compared to 15 percent who say the government is doing enough and 4 percent who say it is doing too much. On the other hand, the public opposes, by a wide 65-31 margin, allowing volunteer ďminutemenĒ to patrol the border to keep out illegal immigrants.
Other useful polling results on immigration can be summarized as follows:

1. The public tends to be roughly evenly-divided about whether immigrants are mostly a burden on the country or mostly strengthen the country, though a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal (April, 2005) had it slightly negative. In that poll, 48 percent said immigrants weaken the country because they put a burden on services, as opposed to strengthen it due to their hard work (41).

2. The same poll asked whether immigrants are an economic benefit because they fill jobs Americans wonít take or were an economic threat because they take jobs away from Americans, the public was almost perfectly split (46/45).

However, CBS News has asked a question for years about whether immigrants take jobs Americans donít want or take jobs away from current Americans. The last time they asked this, in the poll cited above, 58 percent said they take jobs Americans donít want, compared to only 31 percent who said they take jobs away from current Americans.

That poll also found that 46 percent believe immigrants work harder than people born here, slightly more than the number who say there isnít much difference (43 percent) and way more than the number who believe immigrants donít work as hard as the native-born (6 percent).

3. When asked about the impact of legal and illegal immigration separately, the public tends to feel positively about the economic impact of legal immigration (42-23 helped/hurt) but negatively about illegal immigration (54-18 hurt/helped) (Kaiser, August, 2004).

4. In the same poll, by 58-35, the public believes recent immigrants send most of their money back home, rather than spending it in the US.

5. An essentially identical group (58-33) believes recent immigrants do not pay their fair share of taxes.

6. Most Americans (54 percent) believe most recent immigrants are in the country illegally.

7. Americansí top concern about illegal immigration was the impact of that immigration on government services like health care and schools, rather than its impact on jobs.

Whatever policies the political parties choose to advocate on immigration will have to take into account this basic structure of public opinion on immigration, since it appears to be changing very little over time.