For the first time since Gallup began polling about immigration preferences in 1965, Americans are more likely to say that they want more immigration (34%) rather than less (28%). The biggest share (38%) want immigration levels to stay at their present level. (Gallup)
NH: Public attitudes toward Immigration are widely viewed as an indicator of which side--blue zone or red zone--is "winning" the culture war.
Well, there's no question that the two sides are profoundly split on how they feel about immigration. In the most recent Gallup poll, 50% of Democrats believe immigration levels should be increased versus 13% of Republicans. (Independents are in the middle at 34%).
As with so many issues, this split has been widening in recent years. For most of the postwar era up until about 15 years ago, there was actually little difference between Democrats and Republicans on immigration. What's more, most of the attitudinal shift is due to Democrats and to a lesser extent Independents becoming more pro-immigration. (We've witnessed this "net left" trend on other issues, such as race, healthcare, and college debt.)
So contrary to popular impression--and despite rising GOP worries about America "losing its identity" with too much openness--Republican attitudes really haven't changed much. This is true even during the years since 2016, when the GOP made gains among culturally conservative working-class Democrats and suffered losses among culturally liberal suburban voters.
Inescapable conclusion: Americans in general are gradually becoming more favorably disposed to immigration. At the very least, they are more comfortable with current levels. And the share wanting "less immigration" is no longer close to a majority.
One caveat: Once most Americans are no longer shielded from the current recession by stimulus, Americans' favorability toward immigration will almost certainly decline for as long as the hardship lasts. A negative swing in immigration attitudes always happens during recessions. That (potentially explosive) caveat aside, the country does appear to be moving in a more immigrant-friendly direction.
Now for an explanation. Over the long run, the trend in American attitudes toward immigration tends to follow, with a lag, the trend in immigration behavior. When the annual flow of net immigration is rising--especially illegal immigration--attitudes turn negative. When the flow is declining, attitudes turn positive. (I have pointed out a similar dynamic in attitudes toward criminal enforcement: see "The Politics of Falling Crime.")
So what's happened over the last fifteen years in net immigration flow? After averaging nearly 1.0 million yearly during the 1990s and early 2000s, it took a big dive during and after the GFC. At the height of the recent economic expansion, it rose briefly over 1.0 million (in 2014 and 2015) but has since been falling steeply again. The biggest driver of lower immigration has been declining fertility rates in Latin America. Another driver, during both the Obama and Trump presidencies, has been stricter enforcement of immigration laws.
Even more important, the net inflow of illegal immigration plummeted soon after the GFC and has remained low or even negative ever since. According to demographer and immigration expert Jeffrey Passel, the total population of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States peaked in 2008 and has been declining ever since. The share of Hispanics who are first-generation immigrants and who cannot speak English is rapidly declining. Meanwhile, a new wave of Asian immigrants--who tend to be more educated, higher income, and almost entirely legal--is eclipsing the earlier Hispanic wave.
These changing numerical trends are unquestionably changing public attitudes. America continues to accept by far the largest net annual flow of immigrants of any nation in the world. And Americans continue to believe that welcoming immigrants is an important and positive part of the their national heritage. In a recent Quinnipiac University survey, Americans agreed 70% to 17% that "overall" immigration is "good" rather than "bad" for their country. Every age bracket, race, and gender agreed. By 49% to 32%, even Republicans agreed.
The more negative views that prevailed back in the 1990s and 2000s, especially among Democrats, were driven by the perception that the net inflow was too large, was uncontrolled, and was increasingly dominated by illegals. As that reality has changed, so too (with a lag) have attitudes.
Even today, while the favorability barometer has risen, a clear majority wants immigration laws enforced. Last fall, for example, Pew found that 68% of Americans believe it's very or somewhat important to "increase security along the U.S.-Mexico border." And, somewhat paradoxically, a bare majority want to "increase deportations" of illegals even while a larger majority would like to find a way to legalize long-term unauthorized residents.
America, you might say, is returning to its traditionally positive attitude toward a generous and steady level of legal immigration. This is happening after a quarter century in which the immigration seemed beyond the control of elected leaders.
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ABOUT NEIL HOWE
Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.
A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.
Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."
Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.
Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.
Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.