Do apparently clashing poll results on immigration mainly signal that polling companies don’t know what they’re doing? That Americans are fundamentally conflicted on the issue? Or can sensible, and even obvious, reasons be identified for the seeming gap if you just do a little extra thinking? Examining three recent Gallup soundings convinces me that it’s the latter.
On the proverbial one hand, two new Gallup surveys about immigration appear to show that Americans have become much keener on immigrants – possibly including illegal immigrants, though Gallup hasn’t drawn this distinction. On June 29, Gallup reported that a record (post-1993) share of Americans (49 percent) now agree that “immigrants mostly help the U.S. economy by providing low cost labor.” Moreover, except for a drop in the very late 1990s and early 2000s, this number has been rising – though since 2005, the increase has been gradual.
Forty percent of respondents agreed that immigrants “most hurt the economy by driving wages down for many Americans.” In contrast to the trends for those expressing favorable opinions, the share of Americans worried about immigrants’ wage-related economic impact has decreased pretty sharply since 1993 (when it stood at 64 percent), and especially since the early 2000s (when it peaked at 65 percent).
Also encouraging for proponents of more immigration or more lenient policies towards illegal immigrants: a poll the day before showing that the percentages of Americans viewing immigrants as a plus rather than a negative for the country on economic and non-economic grounds had grown impressively between 2007 and 2017. Interestingly, though, even in 2017, the only category in which a majority of Americans emphasized the positive impact of immigration was in “food, music and the arts” (57 percent – up from 40 percent in 2007). Only ten percent of Americans said that immigration had worsened matters on these scores.
On “the economy in general,” only 45 percent in 2017 saw immigrants “making the situation in the country better” (up from 28 percent in 2007). And only 23 percent and 20 percent believed that immigrants had improved the national situation when it comes to “taxes” and “job opportunities for you and your family” – up from 19 and 11 percent, respectively, in 2007.
As for those who believed immigrants’ effects were negative, 30 percent agreed with that proposition regarding the overall economy, 41 percent went along on the subject of taxes, and 28 percent expressed this view on the job issue. (The remainder of respondents stated that immigrants weren’t having much effect in any of these areas.)
As Gallup noted, positive answers to these questions in 2017 were generally at their highest levels since the firm began asking them in 2001. And despite the high negative numbers, a strong argument can be made that the considerable indifference expressed can be seen as an endorsement of immigrants’ growing numbers overall, given the emotional resonance of the issue.
Yet a June 7 Gallup survey created a substantially different picture. It reports that the shares of Americans believing that immigration “should be decreased” has kept falling since the mid-1990s (from 65 percent to 35 percent). But it was still bigger than the growing share believing that immigration “should be increased” – which has risen from the high single digits from the mid-1960s to 24 percent nowadays. Thirty five percent of Americans want “immigration to be kept at its present level,” and this number has stayed pretty stable – with some fluctuations – since the mid-1960s.
And here’s a surprise: Over the past year, the share of Democrats and Democratic leaners who favor decreasing immigration has actually risen slightly (from 20 to 23 percent) while that of Republicans and Republican leaners has shrunk from 60 percent to 48 percent. It’s true that the share of Democrats and leaners favoring greater immigration levels rose slightly as well. But it still stands at only 33 percent. (The rest expressed satisfaction with current levels.)
In this survey, Gallup analysts ventured an explanation for the unusual finding for Republicans; the GOP shift:
“could reflect a sense of political victory among Trump supporters who believe the president is fulfilling the immigration-related promises he made on the campaign trail. Republicans could, thus, feel more satisfied with the current status of immigration than they did during the height of the presidential election. Also, some Trump supporters might believe immigrants are being more thoroughly vetted by the Trump administration.”
I wish that Gallup had been as analytically ambitious in interpreting at least some of the growing popularity of the immigrant population according to the many indicators. One explanation that seems pretty obvious to me: It’s been influenced pretty considerably by the phenomenal growth of the country’s immigrant population. Indeed, since 1960, it’s more than quadrupled in absolute terms (to an estimated 41.3 million as of 2013). And from 1970 to 2013, immigrants increased their share of the American population from 4.7 percent to 13.1 percent. So more of the respondents being reached by Gallup are immigrants themselves, or their children.
It’s true that throughout American history, immigrants have shown a striking tendency to oppose more immigration once they’ve become established in their new homeland – usually for fear of facing new economic competition. But one of the most important and distinctive aspects of American immigration policy in recent decades has surely undercut this form of nativism – the focus on family reunification. That is, it’s likely that many recent immigrants favor more immigration because they view it mainly as a chance to bring in not additional low-wage workers, but close relatives. At the same time, we’ve got statistics strongly indicating that Hispanics’ views on immigration don’t necessarily dovetail with this observation.
So it seems that the most useful bottom line is that polls continue to be important sources of information about major political, social, economic, and other trends, but that to gauge public opinion accurately, you need to keep looking beyond the raw numbers.