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Public Opinion Toward Immigration Reform: How Much Does the Economy Matter?

  • Author(s): Citrin, Jack
  • Green, Donald P.
  • Muste, Christopher
  • Wong, Cara
  • et al.

The United States, a self-styled nation of immigrants, is debating its outlook toward newcomers once again. The policies of increased immigration and expanded legal and political rights for immigrants ushered in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Lemay 1987; Shuck and Smith 1985) are under attack. Today, the political landscape is littered with proposals to reduce immigration, seal the border with Mexico, and reduce government expenditures by limiting the access of both legal and illegal immigrants to government services and benefits. As the policy conflict intensifies, politicians and interest groups on both sides of the issues are striving to shape mass opinion with arguments about the value and cost of immigration (Clad 1994; Passell and Fix 1994).

This paper thus focuses on the foundations of public support for restrictionist demands. In this context, our principal concern is the precise role of economic motive in determining policy preferences. This analytic question has obvious political relevance. The large-scale influx of people striving to improve their lot necessarily influences the economy of the receiving country. Today, as in the past, advocates of restricting immigration content that newcomers displace native workers in the labor market and create a fiscal drain by costing the government more in services than they pay in taxes. Accordingly, the extent to which opinions about immigration originates in economic concerns should indicate how votes are likely to respond to the heated argument over these claims (Huddle 1993; Passell 1994; Borjas 1990; Simon 1989; Vedder and Galloway 1994).

Whatever the economic impacts of immigration, it is also a process that brings ethnic “strangers” into “our” midst. From a theoretical perspective, immigration policy therefore constitutes another excellent case for studying the effects of the interplay between the strategic calculation of personal costs and benefits on the one hand, and commitments to enduring values on the other, on preference formation on policy questions (Citrin and Green 1990; Sears and Funk 1990; Green 1992; Stoker 1992). After testing hypotheses about economic motivations, we thus briefly consider how a symbolic politics model emphasizing the role of cultural attitudes can be extended to the immigration issue.

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