Why pro-immigration advocates face a systematic disadvantage
Opponents of immigration prioritize the issue across virtually all contexts — Proponents don’t
According to the polls, voters in the United States alongside other Western countries have become more supportive of immigration over the recent years. So, why hasn’t the US government faced more public pressure to adopt comprehensive immigration reform?
It turns out that the growing positive sentiments toward immigration may be quite superficial. My most recent study shows that those predominantly liberal voters who support immigration just don’t view it as personally important as those predominantly conservative voters who oppose it. As a result, the pro-immigration coalition continues to be less politically powerful than their anti-immigration counterpart.
After looking at the Gallup chart above, it’s hard to dispute that the average person responding a survey today is more likely to indicate their support for expanding immigration than perhaps ever before.
However, both experts and immigration proponents have frequently misunderstood the meaningfulness of these shifts. Even if one concedes that pro-immigration sentiments are on the rise (which some may dispute), these opinions may still have less political sway due to the difference in the perceived issue importance and its recent rise among anti-immigration voters in particular.
The idea of perceived issue importance is essential to understanding public opinion and how it affects politics. When people say that immigration is important to them personally, for instance, it means that they care more about it than other issues. They are more likely to reflect on it frequently and in depth, look for information, contact elected officials, and vote in accordance with their beliefs.
Despite some previous research efforts, the connection between immigration attitudes and their perceived importance has not been examined before because of a lack of relevant data. Thus, I set out to locate all available, nationally representative surveys that included pertinent questions about people’s views on important political problems and immigration. For the sake of clarity, my main findings are simply based on straightforward comparisons of the proportion of respondents who consider immigration important among those who support or oppose it.
Here is what I found — anti-immigration voters always care more
According to my analysis of the American National Election Studies and the Voter Study Group polls, compared to those who support immigration, those who oppose it feel more strongly about the subject and are more likely to see it as having both personal and national importance. Furthermore, when the issue is receiving more media attention, this pattern becomes particularly pronounced.
Following Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, for example, those who supported restricting immigration were much more likely to rank it as the most important issue facing their nation (27% vs 16%). The same asymmetry was 4% vs 2% in 2012, when immigration was less prominent at a national level. The comparable figures in 2020 were 17% vs 12%. Even in 2020 — the year with the highest pro-immigration polling numbers ever recorded — there may have been fewer supporters of immigration than opponents among those who actually cared about the issue (4% vs 5% of all respondents).
One might reasonably wonder if these results are simply a byproduct of the specific “most important problem” question (which has clear negative connotations). Fortunately, a few polls also include alternative questions that do not have this limitation, allowing for direct comparison of various survey measurements. In 2015, the British Election Survey, for example, also asked respondents, “How strongly do you feel about [immigration]?” The same asymmetry in immigration attitudes existed regardless of particular question.
Virtually all other surveys, countries, and alternative issue importance questions confirm these general findings. There is no known context where more voters wanted to increase immigration and believed it to be more important than other issues, even though those who favor reducing immigration frequently regard it as the most pressing issue. If anything, it seems that the same dynamic — but one that is even more potent than in the US — is at work in all other immigrant-receiving nations across the world.
What does this asymmetry mean for pro-immigration advocates?
Even though polls show that Americans are becoming more pro-immigration, lawmakers are hesitant to make significant pro-immigration reforms. My research shows that, to the extent that these attitudinal changes are real, they may not be quite meaningful in terms of people’s engagement with the issue on the pro-immigration side.
Why do those who oppose immigration care more?
One possibility related to the previously documented asymmetry in the organization of US parties and the respective media environments. If (increasingly anti-immigration) Republicans are more similar in terms of ideology and media attention, they may care about relatively fewer issues than (increasingly pro-immigration) Democrats but more intensely. Given that the same asymmetry is present outside of the US in countries with different political systems and media environments, however, it is unlikely to be just a function of the US partisan context.
Another, arguably more likely possibility is that the perceived threat from immigration is simply more psychologically potent and mobilizing than perceived opportunities. Consistent with this, my initial results indicate that the asymmetry appears to be specific to immigration: anti-immigration respondents care more about immigration in particular, not politics in general. Given that issue importance is a relative concept, it must also be the case that pro-immigration respondents care more about other issues such as healthcare and environment (the specifics of which likely depend on a particular context).
Regardless of its cause, however, immigration advocates may need to grapple more with this asymmetry. An important implication of these findings is that, even though anti-immigration groups may be in decline, political events that raise media awareness of immigration should be more likely to engage those who oppose it than those who support it. In other words, pro-immigration advocates will always be at a systematic disadvantage compared to their opponents unless they find a reliable way to emphasize and cultivate the importance of immigration issues among sympathetic voters only.