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It’s an election year, and down-ballot officials find themselves caught between a Democratic administration looking to house thousands of asylum-seekers and constituents who are leery of assisting them.

The year I have in mind is 1980, when the Mariel Boatlift brought thousands of Cuban refugees to the United States. In explaining how Bill Clinton lost the Arkansas governor’s mansion that year, some pundits pointed to the three Cs — “Cubans, car tags and Carter” — the first being the refugees whom the Carter administration housed at Arkansas’s Fort Chaffee.

Today, the concern is the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children arriving at the southern U.S. border and whether they should receive asylum or be deported. Recent surveys show American public opinion to be roughly split — an AP poll conducted by GfK in July found that 46 percent of respondents thought the children should be treated as refugees while 52 percent did not.

Immigration erupts in a national debate in some moments and is all but ignored in others. In the past two decades, social scientists have learned a fair bit about Americans’ views on immigration,1 and a number of those lessons about the who, what, where and why of Americans’ attitudes toward immigration are on vivid display in the current crisis.

The who

The demographics of immigrant groups certainly have an impact on how Americans feel about them, but Americans’ own demographics affect their attitudes, too. The AP/GfK survey found a partisan divide among respondents, with 70 percent of Republicans saying the children from Central America should not be treated as refugees and 62 percent of Democrats saying they should. In today’s polarized politics, such divides are to be expected. What’s more surprising is that immigration was until recently a cross-cutting issue, with different sides of the debate finding allies in both parties. For example, in the 1960s, an earlier generation of advocates for policies restricting immigration reached out to the NAACP to consider a possible alliance.

Today, Republicans and Democrats respond very differently to the issue — and even to brief uses of Spanish. In an experiment I conducted in 2010 and 2011, Republicans became less supportive of a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants when they heard an immigrant speaking Spanish in a news clip; Democrats didn’t.

A second key predictor of immigration attitudes: Americans’ ethnic and racial backgrounds. In today’s debate, restrictionists would get nowhere seeking common cause with African-Americans. Compared to non-Hispanic whites, African-Americans are, on average, more supportive of reforms such as allowing unauthorized immigrants to gain legal status.

Larger ethnic and racial groups in the U.S. are not monolithic in their views. Still, the general understanding that Asian-Americans and Latinos are more supportive of reforms is quite accurate. The issue is especially important to Latinos, and so likely to be influential at the ballot box.

Education is another predictor of attitudes about immigration, with those who spent longer in school typically voicing more support for immigration. One ready explanation for that pattern is economic self-interest. Perhaps Americans with less education are more concerned about losing their jobs to immigrants, or having to pay more in taxes because of the strain on public services they might cause. In the case of the children from Central America, however, job threat is a patently poor explanation. The children are not coming to the U.S. to work.

Job threat as a motive for Americans opposing immigration is weak not just in this case but in most cases. With Stanford University professor Jens Hainmueller, I published a review of more than 100 studies of immigration attitudes, and the bulk of the evidence shows this attitude is much more the exception than the rule. Whether Americans are retired or still in the labor market, their responses to immigrants don’t differ in any consistent or big way. It seems plausible that education instead matters because it tends to correlate with tolerance.

The what

Opposition to immigration varies depending on the circumstances, and the response to the children from Central America appears to be somewhat less restrictionist than responses to other recent immigrant crises. Contrast the July AP/GfK poll with a Public Religion Research Institute poll showing that a much greater percentage of Americans — 69 percent — thought the children should be treated as refugees and allowed to stay if it’s not safe to return. So the phrasing of the survey question matters. And that suggests there are competing considerations when Americans think about immigration and asylum, considerations that might be brought to the fore by some survey questions but not others. From Benjamin Franklin forward, Americans have long mixed a strong commitment to the immigrant ideal with considerable skepticism of the immigrants of the day, and different situations tap those rival tendencies to different degrees.

Think back to April 2000, when the ordeal of 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, who arrived in Miami on a raft from Cuba, and the question of whether to send him back to his father dominated headlines. (As you might remember, Elian’s mother had drowned on the trip to the U.S., and relatives in Miami argued that they should be granted custody of the boy.) Separate polls by NBC/The Wall Street Journal and CNN found between 66 percent and 68 percent of Americans supported the government’s decision to return Elian to Cuba. Of course, the situation differed in important respects from the plight of the children here today without their parents: Elian had been fleeing Fidel Castro’s Cuba, but also had a father there insisting on his return. And whereas Elian was a single boy, the children at the U.S. doorstep today number in the tens of thousands.

Or consider the Mariel Boatlift, which involved more than 100,000 Cubans. Then, public opinion was decidedly not on the refugees’ side, likely because of their sheer numbers as well as the perception that a sizable number were criminals. In a June 1980 ABC News/Harris poll, 60 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “we should get rid of as many of the Cuban refugees as possible, sending back those we can and getting other countries to take many of them off our hands.” A CBS News/New York Times survey from the same month found that 71 percent of Americans disapproved of allowing “most of these Cuban refugees to settle in the United States.”

American opinion on immigration and refugees is not uniform — it varies with the particulars of the crisis, and with media depictions of the underlying issue. Undeniably, some situations tap humanitarian impulses as well as feelings of threat and anxiety.

The where

In recent weeks, the immigration issue has put state and local officials in the hot seat in communities around the country — and not necessarily in places with large immigrant communities, as the recent anti-immigrant graffiti saying “no illeagles” in a Maryland county northwest of Baltimore illustrates. If opposition to immigration were primarily about job threat, or about the strain on public services, you might expect opposition to be concentrated in communities where immigrant populations are larger. It’s not.

Instead, anti-immigration attitudes tend to crop up in communities where there hasn’t been a long tradition of immigration, and where immigrants are more likely to be seen as a threat to the local way of life. It’s in the places where the immigrant population has grown rapidly, where support for the Republican Party is higher, and where there are fewer obvious political allies to speak up for the newcomers that anti-immigration activism translates into policy.

The why

Pinpointing why Americans are more or less supportive of immigration is more difficult, but a wealth of research across the social sciences has given us some clues. For one thing, when Americans are asked about their views on immigration, one of the major concerns that comes up is about language differences. In a focus group, one respondent explained his views on immigrants by mentioning a fast-food restaurant where he ordered a hamburger and got eight. That suggests that concerns about immigration are to an important extent concerns about the impact it might have on American society, on our ability to communicate and on our sense of collective identity.

Immigration raises deeply meaningful questions about who is an American, and Americans’ views about national identity shape their responses to immigrants. What’s more, regardless of their own education or occupation, Americans prefer immigrants who are well educated and work in high-status professions. So immigration wins more support when it’s seen as economically beneficial, not for specific people but for the country as a whole.

People who follow the political debate over immigration policy will notice a striking gap between what Americans think about immigration, as presented here, and some of the most common ways the issue is discussed by politicians. A central theme of Americans’ attitudes is the impact of immigrants in the months and years after their arrival — about whether they adopt American norms and whether they contribute to the economy. Yet the debate in Washington seems fixated on the question of border security, with surprisingly little attention to the questions of integration and impact that are foremost in constituents’ minds. Americans have strong views about immigrant integration, but the political debate seems stuck at the border.

Footnotes

  1. There is a ton to say about the immigration views of Asian-Americans, blacks, Latinos and other groups, but it’s important to note that some of the studies reviewed below focus only on non-Hispanic whites. ^

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