By William A. Galston
March 29, 2016
You’d never guess it from the headlines during this year’s presidential campaign, but strong majorities of Americans—Democrats, Independents, and Republicans alike—favor immigration reforms that would allow immigrants living in the United States illegally to qualify for citizenship if they meet certain requirements. That’s the finding of a massive rolling survey of more than 42,000 Americans conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and released today.
Overall, 62 percent of Americans favor a path to citizenship for immigrants living here illegally, and an additional 15 percent support permanent legal residency without the option of citizenship. Only 19 percent favor a policy of identifying and deporting them.
There are partisan differences, of course. 72 percent of Democrats support a path to citizenship for immigrants living here illegally, compared to 62 percent of Independents and 52 percent of Republicans. Conversely, 30 percent of Republicans opt for identifying and deporting them, compared to 19 percent of Independents and only 11 percent of Democrats. Still, support is strong across the board. For example, 54 percent of white evangelical Christians favor a path to citizenship.
There’s little doubt, however, that immigration—legal as well as illegal—has triggered deep anxieties in substantial portions of the U.S. population. The PRRI survey also finds that while half of all Americans believe that the growing number of newcomers from other countries “strengthens American society,” fully one-third say that it “threatens American customs and values.”
Age matters: Americans over age 50 are especially likely to embrace the more negative view. And partisanship matters even more: 53 percent of Republicans see immigration as a cultural threat, compared to 33 percent of Independents and 24 percent of Democrats.
In a possible harbinger of the general election this fall, views on immigration vary widely by geographical location. The West and Northeast are more positive than negative about the impact of immigration; the reverse is true for the South and Midwest. Majorities of Americans in 21 states believe that immigration is a net plus for the country, as do pluralities in 20 additional states. Pluralities in 6 states endorse a negative view of immigration, while 3 states are statistically tied.
Ambivalence is especially notable in the Midwest, the region that may prove pivotal in November. While no Midwest state espouses a predominantly negative view of immigration’s impact, only Illinois gives the affirmative view an outright majority. Michigan is split 44 to 38 percent; Minnesota, 45-38; Wisconsin, 46-37; and Ohio, always a key battlefield, by 45 to 40 percent. Democrats may face a hard fight to retain the Midwestern Electoral College advantage they have enjoyed in recent national elections.
On the other hand, the positive view of immigration enjoys majority support in crucial swing states such as Colorado and Florida and a near-majority of 49 percent in Virginia. Support for this view is strong even in long-time red states such as Arizona (55 percent), Texas (52 percent), and Georgia (50 percent). So Republicans may have a fight on their hands in states they have long taken for granted, especially if immigration becomes a more prominent issue in the campaign.
The PRRI survey does not allow us to assess the intensity of feeling on immigration. To judge from the tone of the campaign thus far, it appears to be a voting issue for substantial numbers of Republicans. It remains to be seen whether the Republican contest will trigger a counter-mobilization of first and second-generation Americans who view a restrictive immigration policy as a personal affront. Such a counter-mobilization effort could mean that Republican candidates who are eager to discuss their opposition to comprehensive immigration reform may ultimately regret that strategy come November.
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