Politics aside, Americans still feel positive about immigrants

Americans are deeply split along partisan lines when it comes to policy. But much of the public holds positive opinions about immigrants themselves.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
A woman holds a program at a naturalization ceremony for new US citizens at the Word War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

This electoral cycle, nativism has migrated from the tea party margins of the GOP and into the mainstream of conservative discourse, with presidential candidate Donald Trump as its icon.

But even as debates over immigration intermingle with anxieties about security and terrorism, public opinion toward immigrants themselves remains broadly favorable. That may underscore two seemingly contradictory realities in US politics: Americans’ growing acceptance of the foreign-born and an increasingly vocal opposition to unauthorized immigration.

A new national survey of Americans from the Pew Center conducted from Aug. 9 to Aug. 16 and published on Thursday, found that more than three-fourths of respondents agreed that "undocumented immigrants are as hard-working and honest as U.S. citizens", while 67 percent said they were "no more likely than citizens to commit serious crimes." Seventy-one percent of Americans responded that undocumented immigrants in the US mostly fill jobs that citizens do not want.

Those findings reflect warming attitudes toward immigrants as a whole over the decades. In April, the Pew Center found that 59 percent of Americans agreed that immigrants strengthened the country, compared to 33 percent who said they were a burden.

That marked a "dramatic" shift since 1994, the first year the Pew Center carried out that survey, when it found that the public's beliefs were practically a mirror image of what they are today: Sixty-three percent of Americans that year said immigrants were a burden, compared to just 31 percent who said they strengthened the country.

"You see a longer-term, basic trend toward a greater feeling of acceptance toward immigrants themselves," says Roberto Suro, a professor of public policy and journalism at the University of Southern California.

In the 1970s, with the population's percentage of foreign-born reaching historical lows (4.7 percent in 1970), Americans began to turn restrictionist, even as public policy grew more liberal. Since then, the percentage of foreign-born has risen to more than 12 percent, thanks to large-scale immigration from Latin America and Asia.

Part of the reason why much of the public now sees immigrants in a positive light, Mr. Suro tells The Christian Science Monitor, is that Americans in much of the country have grown accustomed to living with them.

"I think it's partially familiarity," he says. "We've just gotten a lot more used to it. The world didn't come to an end."

So what might explain the resurgence of nativism? Some studies have linked it to economic downturns, a theory that might seem to be borne out by surveys showing that supporters of Donald Trump tend to hail from communities with ailing economies.

But partisanship itself may also be behind such feeling. Americans may tend to feel positively toward immigrants, but on points of immigration policy, their opinions diverge sharply according to party identification.

"The loudest voices in both parties have tended to espouse very much opposed views of immigration policies," says Suro. Those who listen to those political leaders often find media framing around immigration posed in terms that echo their grievances. "We know that highly partisan people tend to go to news sources that are echo chambers for certain views, and the partisan media on the question of immigration is highly polarized."

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