Evan Soltas
Aug 30, 2012

'Huddled Masses Yearning'

Immigration policy has long been in the sights of reformers in the United States. The flaws in the current system seem as obvious as the solutions pragmatic and non-ideological: above all, open the doors for high-skilled immigrants.

But there is a disconnect between the conversation policy wonks are having on immigration and the views of Americans who don't know their congressman's name, let alone the channel number for C-SPAN. And herein lies the problem.

According to the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS), 4 percent of Americans said immigration was the most important political issue facing the nation. 5.5 percent of Americans named it the next most important. As compared to the economy or healthcare -- the two issues Americans name as top priorities -- immigration is just barely on the radar. That makes it an unappealing candidate for policy action in Washington, as politicians rightly observe the lack of a constituency for immigration reform.

Most Americans, however, reject outright xenophobia. Only a third of respondents in 1994 said it was somewhat or very likely that they would be passed over for a job because of immigration, and only a third said in 2000 agreed that English was threatened in the United States by foreign languages. In both cases, large majorities of Americans saw both views as wrong, if not absurd.

Ask them about their views on immigrants another way, however, and a latent nativism rises. Americans told surveyors in 2000 they lean towards reducing immigration from Europe, Latin America, and Asia. 40.8 percent of Americans said they want less immigration, 50.0 said they want it left the same, and only 9.2 percent said they would support any level of increase. Support for "a little" more immigration was twice as high as support for "a lot" more, suggesting a softness in the pro-immigration constituency itself.

The chances for desirable reform are further worsened by the fact that the Americans who see immigration as their top issue mean that restricting it is what they want most from politicians. 60 percent of the Americans who named immigration as their top issue were men, for example, and Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats.

That implies that the passion rests among the nativists rather than the Lady Liberty types of American politics. (There is no direct cross-tab in the GSS, so we must look for clues.) There is a small pocket of support for immigration: new immigrants. 10 percent of respondents who identified as a nonblack minority named immigration as their top political issue, 2.5 times as frequently as the general population. Nevertheless, they are hugely outnumbered by the male Republican nativists.

The facts are that the interest group on immigration policy wants immigration further restricted, not further loosened. Americans remain quietly but deeply suspicious of immigration, and although few are unashamed xenophobes, even fewer consider immigration a real political issue at all.

If immigration reform is to gain any real traction, Americans need to start caring about immigration, accepting that an immigrant society requires immigrants, and shifting the balance of passion against the nativists.