The Bedrock of Ordinary Americans' Immigration Views

By Stanley Renshon on August 15, 2014

Americans do have some bedrock views on immigration, but how legitimate are they given the lack of specific information that ordinarily accompanies them?

The criticism of ordinary Americans' lack of specific information about immigration and other public matters often masks a conceit and several false premises. It also provides an opening to manipulate the public that many advocates and pundits feel no qualms about taking advantage of if it suits their policy preferences, for example by arguing that legalizing illegal immigrants will require them to pay their back taxes when that is patently untrue and misleading.

The conceit is that ordinary Americans should more closely resemble the "experts" and those who can be found frequently voicing their options on multiple subjects online. (They are not the same).

That is a not-to-subtle form of self-congratulation in which the information level of the expert is instantly, by the focus of analysis, contrasted with the "know-nothing" or "know-little" information level of the "average voter" or the "average American." "If only they knew as much as I do," goes the unsaid lament, "American democracy would prosper and policy choices (that I favor) would be more enthusiastically endorsed."

Another version of this assumption is that if only Americans had more specific immigration information, they would come to "better", more enlightened policy conclusions. For example, an examination of American misinformation about the number of illegal migrants that was part of a study that tried to answer these two questions: "Why do people express hostility toward ethnic 'others'?" and "Are there ways to replace such sentiments with tolerance and even goodwill?"

The presumption here is that public overestimation of the percentage of foreign-born persons or illegal immigrants in the population leads to a sense of "threat", to use the author's word, and thus to greater hostility toward ethic "others", read immigrants. They didn't find much evidence of this, but they wanted to see whether giving respondents what they viewed as accurate information would lessen the low levels of "threat" that they did uncover. (pp. 13-14).

The results were surprising:

Respondents who received the correct information were not less likely to say that immigrants have negative consequences or that immigration should be decreased. In fact, if anything, they were more likely to express less favorable views, though none of the observed differences were statistically significant. ... On average, then, providing correct information does not change attitudes toward immigration.

Moreover (pp. 14-15):

Among those who initially underestimated the size of the immigrant population, receiving the correct information increases their concern about immigration. More surprisingly, this same effect emerges among those with the largest initial estimates. Thus, among the very group who arguably perceives the largest threat, correct information about the size of the immigrant population does nothing to mitigate this perception of threat. If anything, correct information magnifies this perception.

The researchers are puzzled by their results, but there is a ready explanation for them.

Next: The Bedrock of Ordinary Americans' Immigration Views: How Many Is Too Much?