Why are Trump voters so angry about immigration?

Building a wall is one of Donald Trump's big applause lines. But why? Some research surveys suggest that many Trump followers aren’t so much anti-Hispanic as they are worried about the perceived effect of immigration on their culture and pocketbooks.

John Bazemore/AP/File
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, right, stands next to Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, at a rally in Madison, Ala., in February. Sessions shares Trump's hard-line views on immigration and his opposition to free trade agreements.

Donald Trump’s supporters have negative views about immigrants, particularly those who entered the United States illegally. That’s not a news flash. Mr. Trump’s vow to build a wall along the southern border – financed by Mexico – remains one of his biggest rally applause lines.

But what, specifically, is behind this anger? Is there anything about undocumented immigration that even Trump voters see in a positive light?

We’ve run across a couple of interesting studies that bear on these questions in recent days. The first is a Pew Research “feeling thermometer” survey that shows one reason why Trump voters, even more so than Republicans in general, think immigration is bad for the US.

The reason? Trump backers appear much more likely to believe that a growing number of newcomers in the US “threatens traditional American customs and values.”

Fully 60 percent of Trump supporters have at least a “somewhat warm” response to that statement. Only 29 percent have a “somewhat cold” response, disagreeing that immigrants are threatening the cultural foundations of the US.

The second study, conducted by assistant professors Morris Levy of the University of Southern California and Matthew Wright of American University, focuses on the opinions of non-Hispanic white voters on illegal immigrants and why many US voters support tougher measures against them. Is it pure anti-Latino prejudice, or something else?

The study’s first finding appears to back the prejudice theory. A survey found that US voters were much less likely to say a Mexican immigrant – as opposed to a German or Asian counterpart – should be allowed into a notional legalization program.

But that discrimination disappeared when respondents were told the Mexican immigrant spoke English and had worked as waiter for two years. That appeared to remove a concern of white voters that the Hispanic immigrant would be a burden on US taxpayers.

“Discrimination against Latinos may grow not from hostility against an ethnic ‘outgroup,’ but rather stereotypes about whether they will contribute to the United States or become a burden,” write Levy and Wright at the Washington Post Monkey Cage political science blog.

These two studies don’t exactly match up and are far from definitive, of course. But taken together they suggest that US white voters, including Trump voters, aren’t so much anti-Hispanic as they are worried about the perceived effect of immigration on their culture and pocketbooks.

That means many might support a path to legalization for illegal immigrants if they were convinced the effort would include stringent enforcement, an English test, and a job requirement. Certainly, of course, another contingent would still remain opposed.

“In other words, whites are open to politics that address the negative group stereotypes – and ensure that new US citizens could genuinely join and contribute to the community,” conclude Levy and Wright.

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