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Economics and Public Opinion on Immigration

by Ruy Teixeira

I covered general public opinion on immigration a while ago. Since then, a number of new polls have looked at the immigration issue and provide some fresh data, particularly on the intersection of economic concerns and immigration.

1. In the late November Time poll, 64 percent said illegal immigrants hurt the US economy, compared to 26 percent who say they help the economy.

2. In the same poll, 74 percent said they US is not doing enough to keep illegal immigrants from crossing over in the US.

3. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 53 percent say immigration hurts more than it help the US, compared to 37 percent who say it helps more than hurts.

4. Over half (51 percent) endorse the view that “Immigration detracts from our character and weakens the United States because it puts too many burdens on government services, causes language barriers, and creates housing problems”, while only 37 percent say that “Immigration adds to our character and strengthens the United States because it brings diversity, new workers, and new creative talent to this country.”

5. Around three-quarters of the public endorses Bush’s proposal to tighten America’s borders with Mexico by increasing the number of borders security agents and his proposal to increase fines against companies that hire illegal immigrants (thought that doesn’t seem to have affected his approval ratings on the issue–see below).

6. In Gallup’s December 9-11 poll, 60 percent say illegal immigrants mostly hurt the economy by driving down wages for many Americans, compared to 32 percent who say they mostly help the economy by providing low cost labor. That’s consistent with the Time poll result cited above. But, intriguingly, Gallup asked the same question with the same wording, except with the substitution of legal immigrants for illegal immigrants. The result: 52 percent mostly hurt/42 percent mostly help, indicating that, while illegal immigrants continue to be viewed more negatively, legal immigrants are now also seen, at least in an economic sense, as part of the problem.

7. Gallup also asked Bush’s approval rating on immigration in two different ways: for handing illegal immigration and for handling legal immigration. Bush’s job rating on illegal immigration was predictably low (26 percent), but his rating on handling legal immigration was not much different (28 percent).

Immigration has yet to spike as an issue, but these data suggest that the public is very dissatisfied with current policy approaches to immigration, especially from an economic standpoint. Progressives should be ready with an alternative sooner, rather than later, if they hope to benefit from that spike.