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Why Do White Americans Support Both Strict Immigration Policies and the DREAM Act?

Racial resentment is a big part of the answer

Immigration policy has been a wedge issue in many presidential elections. In the past three elections, both Democrats and Republicans have used immigration to shore up their respective base supporters and to attract new ones. This is an obvious partisan strategy, but what is a mystery is the contradictory views on immigration of actual voters.

Though immigration was a dominant issue during the 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it is less so this year. Notwithstanding, immigration continues to be an issue that has dire consequences on many communities within the United States, especially immigrant communities of color, and Americans’ public’s policy preferences will continue to remain important. Attitudes on immigration have increasingly become polarized along partisan lines (Abrajano & Hajnal, 2015), with Republicans becoming more right-leaning and Democrats more left-leaning.

However, in a recent paper published in Perspective on Politics, I find that for a subset of white Democrats higher levels of racial resentment and anti-egalitarianism influence their support for both the DREAM Act and restrictive immigration policies. Racial resentment is an implicit and subtle measure of racial attitudes (Kinder & Sanders, 1996). Anti-egalitarianism is the assumption that that equality of opportunity already exists, and anti-egalitarians are opposed to pushing equal rights because it would lead to preferential treatment (Feldman, 1988).

In this study, I ask, what influences most white Americans support for the DREAM Act, and their simultaneous support for restrictive immigration policies that hurt DREAMers and their families?

Photo by Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash

In this current election season, Joe Biden and Donald Trump seemingly stand at opposite ends of the immigration spectrum. On his campaign website, Biden has promised to reverse many of Trump’s “cruel and senseless policies” that separate children at the border and his punitive asylum policies, among others. Biden has also promised to protect DREAMers and their families. Trump on the other hand, on his website, boasts of taking action to wind down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that helped many 1.5 generation undocumented students and young people go or stay in college and seek employment. These young people are called DREAMers, though the particular phrase has been complicated by scholars and young 1.5 generation immigrants themselves (Escudero, 2017; Lauby, 2016; Rivas, 2017).

DACA is an executive order signed by President Barack Obama in 2012 after pressure from DREAM Act activists. President Obama’s order was a consequence of Congress’ inability to pass the DREAM Act. In 2010, the DREAM Act (H.R. 5281) came close to passing, failing by five votes in the Senate. The DREAM Act is distinct from other immigration legislation in that it deals with young people brought to the United States illegally mostly without explicit consent from their parents. This immunizes DREAMers from backlash. The majority of the American public supports the DREAM Act, including Americans from all political parties. However, other immigration policies do not share the same support, leaving most immigration policies subject to a politically partisan fate. Notably, Americans often support the DREAM Act and punitive immigration policies that effectively nullify their support for the DREAM Act by endangering DREAMers and their families.

In the study, I argue that predispositions explain these two contradictory policy preferences. Data from the 2012 American National Election Studies (ANES) and the 2018 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies (CCES) demonstrates that white Americans use racial resentment and anti-egalitarianism as justifications to support both policies. However, the effects are conditioned on partisanship.

The data demonstrates that, among white Americans, higher levels racial resentment and anti-egalitarianism are associated with support for both the DREAM Act and punitive immigration policies. Partisanship plays a key role in mitigating these effects. White Democrats are the most susceptible to these results. For a subset of white Democrats, higher levels of racial resentment and anti-egalitarianism influence their support for the DREAM Act and punitive immigration policies. Among white Democrats, these results are most surprising. This group should be the least likely to support both kinds of policies. This speaks to how predispositions can override partisanship for Democrats. These results will become important depending on how different policies are framed.

Additionally, white Democrats need to rethink their strategy to use the same American values that can be used for inclusive and exclusive outcomes. Is it time for white Democrats to more proudly and loudly speak to structural racism? Equal opportunity in theory works, but in practice, the history of United States demonstrate that equal opportunity and equal outcomes do not exist.

The theory proposed in the study also applies to non-immigration policy. The study found that these same predispositions influence white Americans’ support for welfare and social security. Welfare is largely framed as a policy that helps people of color (Gilens, 1996), while social security is framed as a policy that mostly helps white Americans (Lieberman, 2007).

I found the same pattern.

Whites who want to increase spending on both of these policies (helping both sets of perceived beneficiaries) have lower levels of racial resentment on a scale of zero to one (0.57) and anti-egalitarianism (0.30). In comparison, whites who want to increase social security spending and decrease welfare spending have a racial resentment levels of 0.77 and an anti-egalitarianism level of 0.47. Implicating American values of hard work, meritocracy, and individualism, these predispositions work to maintain the status quo rather than equalize society.

As we continue to wait on the outcome of the 2020 elections, one implication suggests that as long as immigration policy continues to be viewed through a lens of meritocracy, the American public, in particular, white Democrats, might not be privy to the ways their support for policies like the DREAM Act and other restrictive immigration policies actually hurt the very same people they seem to care about. Without attention to structural barriers, immigration policy will continue to disadvantage certain members of the immigrant community and continue a system that is less based on “merit” but on whiteness.


Abrajano, M., & Hajnal, Z. L. (2015). White backlash: Immigration, race, and American politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Escudero, K. (2017, Mar 21). Immigration reform 2.0: Going beyond the ‘good’ vs. ‘Bad’ immigrant framework. Retrieved from http://latinousa.org/2017/03/21/immigration-reform-2-0-going-beyond-good-vs-bad-immigrant-framework-opinion/.

Feldman, S. (1988). Structure and consistency in public opinion: The role of core beliefs and values. American Journal of Political Science, 32(2), 416–440.

Gilens, M. (1996). Race coding and white opposition to welfare. American Political Science Review, 90(3), 599–604.

Kinder, D. R., & Sanders, L. (1996). Divided by color: Racial politics and democratic ideals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lauby, F. (2016). Leaving the ‘perfect dreamer’ behind? Narratives and mobilization in immigration reform. Social Movement Studies, 15(4), 374–387. doi:10.1080/14742837.2016.1149461

Lieberman, R. C. (2007). Shaping race policy: The united states in comparative perspective. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rivas, J. (2017, Aug 25). Why you should stop using the term dreamer. Retrieved from https://splinternews.com/why-you-should-stop-using-the-term-dreamer-1797908148.




3Streams is a blog for anyone interested in the convergence of politics, policy & ideas. It elevates the work of scholars interested in reaching a wider audience on timely topics with novel perspectives. To write for the blog, just leave a message or email 3Streamsblog@gmail.com.

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Yalidy Matos

Yalidy Matos

Matos is an assistant professor of political science and Latino and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University, New Brunswick.

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