How People Think About Immigration

August 3, 2015

Many Americans form their views about illegal immigration largely through a sweeping judgement about the entire issue, rather than an assessment of individual immigrants and the traits they might bring to the country, according to a new study published by IGS Director Jack Citrin and two former IGS graduate students.

The paper, just published in the journal Political Behavior, analyzes two recent surveys to examine how Americans think about both legal and illegal immigration. The paper was written by Citrin along with Matthew Wright of American University, the lead author, and Morris Levy of USC.  Both Wright and Levy studied under Citrin as IGS Graduate Fellows when working on their doctorates at Berkeley.

The authors tested the relative importance of two different modes of evaluating immigrants. One is ‘‘attribute-based’’ judgment, in which respondents weigh immigrants’ desirability based on individual characteristics such as human capital, race, language ability, and so on. The second is ‘‘categorical’’ judgment, which disregards the specific factors altogether. Categorical judgments arise when a policy issue – such as the potential for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants – triggers blanket considerations of justice or principle that evoke overriding beliefs about the policy as a whole or cast the entire category as uniformly deserving or undeserving.

Those respondents making attribute judgments evaluated legal and illegal immigrants by the same criteria, preferring to admit or legalize those with work skills, English-speaking ability, and prior connections to the United States.

When evaluating whether illegal immigrants should have a ‘‘path to citizenship,’’ 40 percent of respondents provided a categorical answer about all illegal immigrants, either rejecting or accepting all illegal immigrants regardless of those immigrants’ ethnic, linguistic, or socioeconomic attributes, the authors found.

The most common categorical response – a wholesale rejection of all illegal immigration – is tied to support for abiding by the law, according to the study.

“In effect,” they wrote, “this type of moral thinking blurs distinctions between individual illegal immigrants and generates a rigid all-or-nothing decision logic that subverts acceptance of precisely the sorts of compromises the last two presidential administrations have attempted to hash out.”

When assessing legal immigration, people are much less likely to make a sweeping categorical judgment about the entire issue, the study found.

The authors found some evidence for a smaller group of categorically positive attitudes toward illegal immigrants as a group, often associated with a different set of core values, namely humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and empathy toward illegal immigrants.  But the dominant finding was that illegality is a much more powerful trigger of categorical rejection than it is of categorical acceptance

“What emerges,” the authors wrote, “is that one cannot fully understand what people think about immigration without also considering how they think about it.”