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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Is there a “Disconnect” between Public Opinion and U.S. Immigrant Admissions Policy?

  • Author(s): Levy, Morris
  • Wright, Matthew
  • Citrin, Jack
  • et al.

A large body of research suggests that immigration policy-making in liberal democracies overlooks most citizens’ preferences most of the time. To support this view, scholars often point to an apparent “disconnect” between the expansionary immigration policies prevailing in most of the West and the heavily exclusionary bent of public opinion. This paper argues that the “disconnect” thesis oversimplifies ordinary citizens’ preferences over immigrant admissions policies in ways that inflate the divergence of public policy from public opinion. It demonstrates that the U.S. public’s abstract preference for less immigration in general coexists with strong majority acceptance of the specific admissions policies that generate most immigration. This seeming inconsistency arises in part because concrete questions about admissions policies evoke stronger humanitarian and economic considerations than the standard, more abstract, gauge of immigration policy preferences does. Citizens by and large do not support rolling back the number of immigrants admitted through family reunification, provisions for refugees, and skills-based visas even when they are made aware that these three admissions categories combined account for nearly all foreigners admitted permanently into the country.

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