Public Opinion

Chris Haynes
Assistant Professor, University of New Haven

The latter part of the 20th century saw immigration policy re-ignited on the national level with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986, California’s Proposition 187 in 1994, and the heavy influx of undocumented immigrants from Latin America and Asia. Realizing the importance of the role of public opinion , many scholars turned their attention to explaining immigration attitudes and preferences over immigration policy (Citrin etal. 1997; Espenshade and Calhoun 1993; Hood and Morris 1998). Using survey data and statistical analyses, these scholars asked: Which factors best explain public opinion on immigration? In answering this question, scholars have proposed a host of different factors, including economic threat, job threat, racial threat, racial contact, education, ideologies, values, and beliefs about the impact of immigration. In the following review, I present a brief overview of the diverse and expanding research on public opinion on immigration.

Economics and Self Interest
Some of the early works regarding public opinion on immigration investigated how economic factors affect attitudes towards immigration and immigrants, with a number of related hypotheses. The resource hypothesis posits that those more economically vulnerable in terms of income would be more hostile to increased immigration and permissive immigration policies (Citrin et al. 1997; Burns and Gimpel 2000). The pessimism hypothesis explains public opinion on immigration in socio-tropic terms, looking at how a person evaluates the trajectory of the economy. In other words, the more optimistic a person feels about the national economy, the more supportive they tend to be of permissive policies (Burns and Gimpel 2000). Third, the job competition hypothesis suggests that those who are most likely to be in direct competition with immigrants will tend to be less supportive of permissive immigration policies (Scheve and Slaughter 2001; Citrin et al. 1997). In a cross country comparison, Mayda (2006) finds that individual skill (i.e., job skill level) is positively related to support for more permissive immigration policies where immigrants are skilled. However, they also find this relationship to be negative for instances in which most immigrants are unskilled (Mayda 2006). However, more recent findings may question these findings (Fachini 2009). Finally, the consumption of public resources hypothesis argues that those who express more antipathy for taxes and those living in jurisdictions where taxes are higher are less likely to support permissive immigration policies (Citrin et al. 1997).

A purely economic explanation of immigration opinion may, however, be insufficient. Accordingly, many studies find that education also has a signficiant effect on support for permissive immigration policies (Citrin et al. 1997; Burns and Gimpel 2000; Pantoja 2006). These scholars attribute this finding to the argument that the more education a person attains, the more a person would understand the importance of immigration in economic terms and the more tolerant they would become of others. Others offer conflicting findings. Mayda (2006) and Facchini and Mayda (2009) find that education is negatively related to support for permissive policies in countries where immigrants are, on average, skilled. This implies that although as people become more educated, they may become more tolerant, but this factor seems to be trumped by individual economic self-interest.

Race, Ethnicity, and Place of Residence
Early studies of attitudes towards immigrants found that race/ethnicity was a significant predictor of public opinion on immigration (Citrin et al. 1997). However, this variable cuts a number of ways theoretically. Some explain the significance of race in terms of implicit racism (Hopkins et al. 2009). Others explain this in terms of racial threat, for example, showing that whites who live in areas that have a higher concentration of Hispanics tend to be less supportive of immigration (Hood and Morris 1998).

Studies have also found that those living in border areas have significantly different attitudes towards immigration. Burns and Gimpel (2000) find that respondents living in border states are more likely to express negative stereotypes about immigrants and more likely to support decreased levels of immigration. Explanations to these findings abound. However, prominent among them are symbolic racism, media effects, and self-interest. Yet, many have challenged the finding that proximity to the border hardens negative attitudes, citing the contact literature (Pettigrew 1998). According to this perspective, one would expect that the increased racial and ethnic diversity of border areas might decrease the uncertainty individuals have about immigrant groups, eventuating in higher support for permissive immigration policies. However, similar to other studies examining racial context (see Oliver and Wong 2003), there is evidence to suggest that both processes may be at work, depending on time and place (Hood and Morris 1998; Hopkins 2010).

Ideologies and Predispositions
Others explain public opinion on immigration in terms of political ideologies, values, and beliefs. Early explanations argued that the more politically conservative a person is, the more likely she is to oppose permissive policies. Some suggest that political conservatives are more concerned about the economic costs of increased immigration (Citrin et al. 1997; Burns and Gimpel 2000). However, other accounts add more nuances to this debate, arguingthat the relevance of ideology depends on the policy one wants to explain (Pantoja 2006). While political conservatism has been shown to “matter” partisanship has not, as Democrats and Republicans express similar levels of opposition to permissive immigration policies (Citrin et al. 1997; Pantoja 2006).

In addition to explanations that rely on cross-sectional survey data, more recent research has sought to take advantage of experimental and survey experimental methods to delve into questions of causal inference.

Media/Elite Effects
A number of studies have taken up the task of applying the media effects literature (i.e. news source, priming, and framing) to questions about public opinion on immigration. Researchers examining priming effects find that the media can have an important agenda setting effect, wherein more frequent coverage of immigration causes individuals to attribute more importance to the issue (Dunaway et al. 2010). Beyond the frequency of coverage, others find that particular words embedded in news accounts that cue the race/ethnicity of immigrants can have significant effects on opinion formation and change (Brader et al. 2008). The significance of such cues is attributed to the racialization of immigration especially among whites (Barreto et al. 2009; Brader et al. 2009). Recent research also finds that the race/ethnicity of the news recipient can interact with racial cues to affect attitudes and preferences (Martinez 2009). Other research suggests that implicit racial cues (language markers) may activate cultural threat, which depresses support for permissive immigration policies among those who come into frequent contact with immigrants (Hopkins et al. 2010). However, along the lines of Mendelberg (2001), and consistent with Bowler et al. (2006), explicit cueing can and often backfires (Hopkins et al. 2009). Researchers examining framing effects find that the use of different types of frames to present information about immigrants or immigration policies can significantly impact opinion (Martinez 2009). Finally, on a more general level, some argue that news source “matters.” Abrajano and Singh (2008) find that Hispanics who obtain their news from Spanish language news outlets tend to have more positive attitudes toward immigrants than those who watch English language news. They attribute this to their finding that Spanish language news accounts of immigrants tend to be more positive in tone than English news.

Often in conjunction with the literature on media effects, the most recent inquiries tend to focus on the moderating impact that emotions, specifically anxiety about immigration or immigrants, can have on public opinion (Brader et al. 2008). Brader et al. (2008) find that anxiety seems to moderate the effect that racial cues have on opinion change on immigration policies. Albertson and Gadarian (2010) also find that fear can have significant biasing effects on information processing and thus, on ultimate immigration attitudes for specific segments of our population. Others strongly suggest that different types of threat and anxiety may be the causal factor in triggering public opposition to immigration policies (Hopkins et al. 2009; Brader 2008).

As this review of immigration opinion shows, the expanse of immigration opinion is vast, yet the research addressing it is still in its relative infancy. With immigration policy continuing to be a contentious issue at the national and sub-national levels in the United States, it is likely that the research agenda on public opinion will continue to be important in the years to come.

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