Support for Immigration Reform Driven by Perception of Immigrants’ Economic Impact
March 13, 2013
by Emily Ekins
1747 Connecticut Avenue NW
Washington DC 20009
Tel (202) 986-0897
Support for eVerify Drops When Costs Considered
Public Supports Legal Residency and Path to Citizenship for Unauthorized Immigrants; Tepid Support To Ease Path for Legal Immigration
This report details Americans’ perceptions of immigration’s economic impact and support for reform, based on findings from the latest national Reason-Rupe poll, which interviewed 1002 adults on landline and mobile phones February 21-25, 2013.
A majority support legal residency and path to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently residing in the United States. However, Americans are less supportive of making it easier for future immigrants to enter the country legally. Support for reform is in part driven by perception of immigrants’ economic impact, which suggests that addressing these underlying assumptions may be key to convincing the public of a particular reform.
Fully 70 percent of Americans think unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States should be allowed to stay. Moreover, a majority (55 percent) believes unauthorized immigrants should be eventually allowed to apply for citizenship if they meet certain requirements.
There is less enthusiastic support for raising visa caps for high-skilled (40 percent) and low-skilled workers (40 percent). Interestingly, the public feels about the same regarding high-skilled and low-skilled visas.
Significant partisan differences emerge regarding the impact of immigration on the economy and thus support for legal residency and a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. However partisan differences diminish when it comes to easing the path for new immigrants seeking high skilled and low skilled visas.
Americans’ views of immigration’s economic impact are a stronger driver of policy preferences than is partisanship. In fact, partisan differences are significantly diminished when accounting for differences in economic assumptions.
As a benefits-only proposition, there is broad bipartisan support (79 percent) for a federal government database like eVerify that verifies the legal immigration status of any job applicant an employer considers hiring. However, support plummets when costs to businesses are considered.
I. Support for Reform
Fifty-five percent of Americans support offering legal residency and an eventual path to citizenship to unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States if they meet certain requirements. Far fewer support deportation (27%) while 11 percent support allowing unauthorized immigrants to stay temporarily as guest workers, or stay permanently but without a path to citizenship (4 percent).
Although a majority supports reform for unauthorized immigrants, there is only tepid support for making it easier for future immigrants to come into the country legally. Forty percent of Americans favor raising the number of visas given to highly-skilled and low-skilled workers, while about 43 percent prefer to maintain the current level. Roughly 12 percent favor reducing the visa cap.
Surprisingly, not even a majority of Americans who support legal residency for unauthorized workers favor raising the cap on visas; they are divided over whether to maintain (43%) or raise it (45%).
Americans who favor deporting undocumented workers are also cooler toward easing the legal pathway for future immigrants. Among these, only 28 percent favor increasing the number of low skilled visas, 42 percent would keep it the same, and about a quarter would reduce the number of visas. The fact that so few Americans who favor deportation support easing legal immigration suggests these individuals are less favorable toward immigration in general, not simply rule-breaking. Indeed, among those who favor deportation, 67% feel immigrants harm the economy and 82% think immigrants take jobs from Americans. In sum, opposition to rule-breaking may not be the driving force behind support for deportation, but rather concern over immigration’s impact.
II. Perceptions of Immigration’s Economic Benefits Drives Support for Reform
Americans’ underlying assumptions about how immigration impacts the economy significantly shapes their attitudes toward reform. Americans who believe immigrants grow the economy and don’t “take jobs away” are also more likely to favor reforms easing legal entry for future immigrants and offering residency and citizenship opportunities to unauthorized immigrants.
Currently, Americans are evenly divided over whether immigration grows (40 percent) or hurts (40 percent) the economy; few (15 percent) believe it has no impact. A majority (52 percent) worries immigrants take jobs away from native-born Americans, 42 percent do not share this concern.
A. Perception of Economic Benefits
Among Americans who believe immigrants help grow the economy nearly three quarters (73%) think unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to stay and eventually apply for citizenship. Only 11 percent favor deportation of undocumented migrants. A majority (52 percent) also favor raising or removing the visa cap for high skilled and low skilled workers, easing the path for legal migration to the United States.
Those who perceive economic benefits from immigration also feel less angst regarding immigrants taking away jobs from the native-born. Three-quarters (75 percent) don’t believe immigrants take jobs away from Americans, only 22 percent believe they do.
B. Perception of Economic Costs
In stark contrast, Americans who feel immigrants harm the economy are more likely to support deportation of unauthorized immigrants and oppose easing the path for legal immigration. A plurality (45%) says unauthorized immigrants should be deported, while 34% say they should be allowed to stay and eventually apply for citizenship. These Americans are also 20 points less likely to favor raising the visa cap for high skilled and low skilled workers with only about 30 percent support.
Immigration angst manifests primarily among those who fear immigrants both take jobs and harm the economy; among these, nearly half favor deportation for all 11 million unauthorized immigrants. However, among Americans who are worried about only immigrants’ impact on the economy or jobs, but not both, 61 percent favor legal residency and a path to citizenship.
Although immigration angst is a driver of policy preferences, it is not necessarily a deciding factor. Even among those who favor legal residency and path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, a quarter are concerned immigrants may harm the economy and 40 percent believe they take away jobs.
C. Democrats Are More Supportive of Easing Path for Unauthorized Immigrants
Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to say immigration hurts the economy and far less likely to support legal residency and path to citizenship. A majority (53%) of Republicans and 42 percent of Independents believe immigration hurts the economy compared to 28 percent of Democrats. Likewise, 67 percent of Republicans and 56 percent of Independents think immigrants take jobs from native-born Americans, compared to 42 percent of Democrats.
Not surprisingly, far more Democrats favor legal residency and path to citizenship (66 percent) for unauthorized immigrants than Republicans (41 percent). Independents are evenly divided over whether immigration grows the economy, but side with the Democrats when it comes to policy for unauthorized immigrants (55 percent).
D. Democrats and Republicans Are Equally Supportive of Maintaining the Status Quo for High Skilled and Low Skilled Visas Annually Distributed
Interestingly Democrats are actually as likely as Republicans (both roughly 40 percent) to favor raising the visa cap for either high skilled or low skilled workers. This is surprising since those more favorable of immigration tend to support raising the visa caps, but Democrats who are favorable to immigration are no more likely to ease the path for future migrants. Republicans who believe immigrants strengthen the economy are actually more willing than Democrats to raise the cap on high-skilled visas (66 to 55 percent). Roughly half of both groups favor raising the cap on low-skilled visas.
After controlling for perceptions of immigration’ economic impact, partisanship’s influence on policy preferences diminishes substantially. If partisans assume immigrants strengthen the economy, strong majorities of both Republicans and Democrats support legal residency and a path to citizenship for unauthorized workers. In contrast, equal numbers (and pluralities) of Republicans and Democrats favor deportation if they believe immigrants harm the economy.
Disagreement over how to address the eleven million unauthorized immigrants currently in this country largely rests on ones’ assumptions about their economic impact, more than on ones’ partisanship. Policy advocates would be wise to understand why Republicans share different economic assumptions than Democrats. For instance, it may be self-selection into either party, or Americans are receiving different rhetorical cues from their respective political elites.
More education increases ones’ belief in the economic benefits of immigration, but age is negatively correlated. A majority of college graduates (53 percent) and those with post graduate degrees (68 percent) share optimism of immigration’s economic benefits, but a little more than a quarter of those with high school diplomas share this view. Those with postgraduate degrees are 17 points more likely to favor a path to citizenship than high school graduates. Majorities of millennials believe immigrants grow the economy, but only about 35 percent of those aged thirty-five and older agree. Less surprisingly, millennials are more likely to favor residency and path to citizenship than those over thirty (60 to 53).
White Americans are more skeptical of the economic benefits of immigration. Forty-six percent of Caucasians think immigrants hurt the economy and 60 percent say immigration takes jobs away from native-born Americans. Latinos disagree; 56 percent say immigration help the economy and 59 percent say immigrants don’t take away jobs. African-Americans are in the middle; a plurality (47 percent) say immigrants bolster the economy but 52 percent say they also take jobs away from native-born Americans.
There are also regional disparities over whether immigrants strengthen the economy. Americans in the Northeast and West are far less concerned about the effects of immigration than are Midwesterners and Southerners. Pluralities in the Northeast (48%) and West (43%) say immigrants bolster the economy and are evenly divided over whether immigrants take away jobs. However 57% of Midwesterners and 60% of Southerners say immigrants take away jobs and a plurality of those in Midwest (45%) worry immigrants harm the economy, while the South is evenly divided.
In sum, understanding individuals’ underlying assumptions about the effects of immigration helps explain support for easing or restricting the immigration pathway.
III. Public Support for eVerify Drops Significantly When Costs Considered
Few Americans see much reason to oppose eVerify when it is first presented to them as a federal government database that employers use to ensure they hire workers eligible to work in the US. However, once costs to small businesses are introduced, support for eVerify plummets, even among those with the greatest anxiety over immigration.
Fully 79 percent of Americans, including majorities of all political groups, support requiring employers to check with a federal government database that verifies the legal immigration status of any job applicant they consider hiring. They say this even when they are aware that both native-born and foreign-born applicants would be in the database. Although 73 percent of Democrats favor eVerify, their opposition is double that of Republicans (22 to 10 percent).
When respondents learn their own name would be kept in the database, opposition rises to 28 percent, but support still hovers around two-thirds. However, 58 percent of respondents would oppose eVerify if business owners were required to pay $150 for every worker they are considering hiring. Republicans are especially sensitive to this cost with opposition jumping 53 points from 10 percent to 63 percent. Democratic and Independent opposition also rises from roughly 18 percent to 57 percent.
Even a majority among those who fear immigration harms the economy would oppose eVerify if its costs fell upon employers and small business owners. In fact, among the 27 percent of Americans who favor deportation of all unauthorized immigrants, support for eVerify drops from 88 percent to 33 percent once costs are considered. This means even those less enthusiastic about immigration could be persuaded to oppose eVerify once they learn about the costs. It also suggests that one need not be convinced immigration benefits the economy and doesn’t steal jobs to oppose eVerify.
Among the 8 in 10 American who initially supported eVerify, half changed their minds upon learning that eVerify would cost employers $150 per person. These Americans tend to be more Republican, older, church-going protestants, and more likely to support the tea party movement.
As a benefits-only proposition, Americans support eVerify as a method to check the legal status of workers in the US. However, they do not support shifting the financial burden of border enforcement onto the shoulders of businesses.
A majority of Americans support offering legal residency and a path to citizenship to unauthorized immigrants currently living in the county who also meet particular requirements. While Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to support this kind of reform, Americans’ underlying assumptions of immigration’s economic impact may be a stronger driver of their policy preferences. When taking into account whether Americans think immigrants strengthen the economy or take their jobs, the effect of political partisanship is significantly diminished.
Policy advocates may be best served speaking directly to Americans’ economic assumptions. They should speak to how immigration affects jobs, wealth creation, economic growth, and societal prosperity, to move the dial toward reform.
Democrats are more favorable toward offering undocumented workers’ residency than are Republicans, but neither group reaches a majority in support of making it easier for future immigrants to come into the country legally.
These results indicate that policy advocates have insufficiently explained to the American people why in recent years so many immigrants have entered the country illegally. To propose reforms without addressing illegal immigration’s root causes, one is simply endorsing a repeat of the status quo rather than advocating for change.
Other reforms garnering majority support include eVerify, a federal government database to verify the immigration status of job applications. However, support fades when the likely costs of the program to businesses are also considered. Consequently, policy advocates should address both the costs and benefits of proposed reforms to adequately gauge public support.
The Reason-Rupe January 2013 Poll interviewed 1002 adults on both mobile (502) and landline (500) phones, including 253 respondents without landlines from February 21-25, 2013. The margin of sampling error is +/- 3.8%. The margin of error increases for open-ended questions asked of subsets of the survey sample. Princeton Survey Research Associates International (PSRAI) conducted the survey. Interviews were done in English by Princeton Data Source LLC. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. When feasible, answer choices within questions were rotated. For detailed methodological information, please visit http://reason.com/reason-rupe-poll-methodology.
The poll questionnaire, crosstabs, and analysis can be found at reason.com/poll.
VI. Question Wording
Q24 In your view, does immigration help grow the U.S. economy, hurt the U.S. economy, or not make much impact on the U.S. economy?
Q25 And, in your view…does increasing the number of immigrants in the U.S. take jobs away from native-born Americans, or not?
Q26 In your view, do immigrants come to the United States primarily to find jobs and improve their lives or primarily to try to obtain government services and welfare benefits?
Q27 Do you favor or oppose requiring employers to check with a federal government database that verifies the LEGAL immigration status of any job applicant they are considering hiring, including both native-born and foreign-born applicants?
Q28 Would you favor or oppose this verification requirement if your name has to be kept in the federal database?
Q29 Would you favor or oppose this requirement if business owners have to pay $150 to verify the legal status of every worker they are considering hiring?
Q30 Currently, the federal government limits the number of visas available for highly-skilled workers to 85,000 per year, which is less than the number American companies request. Do you think this cap on visas for highly-skilled workers, like engineers and doctors, should be raised, lowered, kept the same, or removed?
Q31 The U.S. government also caps the number of temporary work visas given to low-skilled workers at 66,000 per year, which is less than what American companies request. Do you think this cap on visas for low-skilled workers who work in landscaping, construction, and other fields, should be raised, lowered, kept the same, or removed?
Q32 Which comes closest to your view about unauthorized immigrants who are currently living in the United States? They should be allowed to stay in the U.S. and eventually be allowed to apply for citizenship if they meet certain requirements, [OR] They should be allowed to stay in the U.S., but not be allowed to apply for citizenship, [OR] They should be allowed to stay in the U.S. temporarily as guest workers, and then be sent back to their home countries, [OR] They should be deported back to their home countries