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

By Stanley Renshon on August 19, 2014

Researchers asking if providing "accurate" information about the percentage of foreign-born persons and illegal immigrants in the population of the United States would lead survey respondents to feel less of a "threat" from, and be more welcoming to, ethnic "others" (immigrants), were surprised to find accurate numbers (i.e., the estimates that researchers provided) didn't make much difference (p. 15). Americans were not happy with the figures, even when they were given the "correct" (i.e. estimated) numbers.

The researchers wondered why and speculated as follows (p. 15):


A speculative explanation is that respondents with large over-estimates believe that a foreign-born population that comprises 12 percent of the total population is still too large. Moreover, this 12 percent figure is presented in the experimental treatment as definitive, potentially reinforcing and even exacerbating these respondents' concerns about immigration.

Interestingly, giving respondents the "correct" numbers (the Pew Center estimates) about the percentage of illegal migrants in the population (3 percent) did not reveal the same pattern as above; there was no effect one way or the other.

As a result, the researchers then wrote that, "The most general conclusion about this experiment, then, is simply that correct information about [illegal] immigrant numbers does little to affect attitudes about [illegal] immigration."

Maybe. However, I think they are missing something.

My own view is that if the researchers had used the actual numerical estimate of 10.5 million illegal migrants living in the United States at the time the study was conducted in 2005, they would have had similar responses in both cases — 12 percent of the population being foreign-born and 10.5 million illegal migrants are too much and too many respectively.

Why is this study worth parsing? It's worth our time for several reasons. The two researchers who carried out this study are serious, knowledgeable political scientists. I know them both and they are not overtly or obviously partisan. Rather they appear to suffer, as so many less thoughtful people do, from what might be called the soft liberal elitism of disbelief that ordinary Americans cannot accept that more and more immigration is a public good.

Surely, Americans' concern must come from a misunderstanding, a misperception. And if they only knew the real numbers, their concerns would be alleviated and they would be more "welcoming".

This obviously wasn't the case. And the researchers' surprise is itself, at first glace, surprising, but on reflection less so. They began with the assumption that Americans shouldn't be concerned, and ended with puzzlement that ordinary Americans are concerned both with high levels of immigration overall and also about the large numbers of illegal migrants living and working here.

These findings have nothing to do with Americans' basic views of how many legal immigrants are "enough" or how many illegal migrants are "too many". The numbers, whether they are overestimates or the "real" numbers (estimates), have clearly crossed a threshhold after which many are saying that is too much.

Americans have been saying this quietly and persistently for many years, but political leaders from both parties, as well as civic, religious, and advocacy groups, have refused to listen.

That is absolutely the case when it comes to the question of whether immigration should be increased, reduced, or held as its current levels.

Next: The Bedrock of Ordinary Americans' Immigration Views: Future Immigration Levels