Cartoon by Signe Wilkinson

Why Immigration Divides

The Atlantic: Immigration seems to be the most prominent wedge issue in America. Senate Republicans and Democrats shut down the federal government over the treatment of immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, also known as Dreamers. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Donald Trump referred to U.S. immigration law as a “broken” system; one party clapped, the other scowled. This polarized reaction reflects a widening divide among voters, as Democrats are now twice as likely as Republicans to say immigrants strengthen the country.

These stories and others might make it seem like most Americans are anxious about the deleterious effects of immigration on America’s economy and culture. But along several dimensions, immigration has never been more popular in the history of public polling:

  -  The share of Americans calling for lower levels of immigration has fallen from a high of 65 percent in the mid-1990s to just 35 percent, near its record low.

  -  A 2017 Gallup poll found that fears that immigrants bring crime, take jobs from native-born families, or damage the budget and overall economy are all at all-time lows.

   - In the same poll, the percentage of Americans saying immigrants "mostly help" the economy reached its highest point since Gallup began asking the question in 1993.

  -  A Pew Research poll asking if immigrants "strengthen [the] country with their hard work and talents" similarly found affirmative responses at an all-time high.

But immigration is not a monolithic issue; there is no one immigration question. There are more like three: How should the United States treat illegal immigrants, especially those brought to the country as children? Should overall immigration levels be reduced, increased, or neither? And how should the U.S. prioritize the various groups—refugees, family members, economic migrants, and skilled workers among them—seeking entry to the country? It’s possible that most voters don’t disentangle the issues this specifically, and don’t think too much about the answers to each question. After all, immigration ranks quite low on Americans’ policy priorities—it’s behind the deficit and tied with the influence of lobbyists—which makes responses shift along with the positions of presidential candidates, political rhetoric, or polling language. (You might, for example, get very different answers to questions emphasizing “law and order” versus the general value of “diversity”) >>>