Divergent Foreign Policy Views: Survey finds biggest public/elite gap is over immigration

By Mark Krikorian on December 25, 2002

In The National Interest, Volume 1, Issue 16, 17

It comes as no surprise that there are significant differences between the opinions of the public and the elite on a variety of foreign-policy issues. But an analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies finds compelling evidence that the foreign-policy related issue which features the biggest such gap is immigration -- and the gap seems to be increasing.

And this would appear to set the stage for the kind of political surprises that have occurred in many European countries whose elites were similarly dismissive of growing public concern over immigration.

The new CIS paper, "Elite vs. Public Opinion: An Examination of Divergent Views on Immigration," is based on data from a survey on foreign policy issues conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, part of a trans-Atlantic effort with the German Marshall Fund, which conducted a similar survey in Europe. The Chicago Council's U.S. survey, taken in May through July 2002, was based on 2,800 interviews of ordinary Americans and a cross-section of 400 "opinion leaders," including members of Congress, the administration, church leaders, business executives, union leaders, journalists, academics, and leaders of major interest groups.

Most of the discussion of the survey results so far has focused on comparisons between the U.S. and Europe; see, for instance, "The Real TransAtlantic Gap" by Craig Kennedy and Marshall M. Bouton, in the November/December issue of Foreign Policy. But while the Chicago Council's discussion of its survey did not pull together the results on immigration, doing so is quite revealing.

The data show that the gap between the opinions on immigration of the American people and their leaders is enormous. The survey found that 60 percent of the public regards the present level of immigration to be a "critical threat to the vital interests of the United States," compared to only 14 percent of the nation's leadership -- a 46 percentage-point gap. What's more, the current gap is even wider than the 37 percentage-point difference found in 1998, when 55 percent of the public viewed immigration as a "critical threat," compared to 18 percent of opinion leaders then.

There was no other foreign policy-related issue in the survey on which the American people and their leaders disagreed more profoundly than immigration. Even on such potentially divisive issues as globalization or strengthening the United Nations, the public and the elite were much closer together than they are on immigration.

The large difference between elite and public opinion can also be seen on the specific issue of illegal immigration. A different section of the survey found that 70 percent of the public said that reducing illegal immigration should be a "very important" foreign-policy goal of the United States, compared to only 22 percent of those in the elite. In fact, the goal of reducing illegal immigration was identified as important by more of the public than such goals as "maintaining superior military power worldwide" and "improving the global environment."

The gap on this issue was also clear from another question; when respondents were asked the open-ended question, "What are the biggest foreign policy problems?", the public ranked illegal immigration sixth of 69 concerns, while elites ranked it twenty-sixth.

When asked a specific question about whether legal immigration should be reduced, kept the same, or increased, 55 percent of the public said it should be reduced, and 27 percent said it should remain the same. In contrast, only 18 percent of opinion leaders said it should be reduced, and 60 percent said it should remain the same. Though these issue-specific questions were structured in a variety of ways, making direct comparisons difficult, it appears that here, too, there was no other question on which the public and elites differed more widely.

Much of the public already seems aware of this disconnect over immigration, as evidenced by public ranking of President Bush's performance on a variety of foreign policy areas. The survey results suggest that President Bush's efforts to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants are hurting him politically; while 53 percent of the public said his handling of foreign policy overall was excellent or good, on immigration only 27 percent said his handling of immigration was excellent or good. The 70 percent of respondents who said the president's performance on immigration was "poor" or "fair" was his most negative rating on any issue in the survey.

The reasons for this very wide difference between elite and public perceptions of immigration are not clear from the survey, but some speculation is possible. Class differences are one likely contributor, since members of the elite are, almost by definition, better educated, earn higher incomes, and work in fields generally insulated from immigrant competition. Also, a post-American worldview, discounting the importance of national borders and even national identity, is much more prevalent among members of the elite than the public.

Whatever the cause, one result of this disconnect has been to distort immigration enforcement. During the 1990s, enforcement efforts on the southern border with Mexico increased significantly, in order to appease public concerns over lax immigration controls; at the same time, however, enforcement of immigration laws within the United States was all but phased out, negating the tightening at the border and ensuring that the elite preference for looser immigration controls would be satisfied.

The deep public dissatisfaction with current immigration policy suggests that this is an issue waiting for a populist candidate to become its champion. We should therefore not be surprised if, in the not too distant future, we see in the United States the kind of political surprises we've seen in recent years in the Netherlands, Austria, France, Denmark, and elsewhere.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.