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The Real Story of Americans' Immigration Views

By David Paul Kuhn

Americans support legal immigration and oppose illegal immigration.

But another picture often emerges from the chattering class. Americans' opposition to illegal immigration is wrongly described as opposition to immigration itself.

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Immigration is America's most contentious of unresolved issues. The public remains divided over aspects of the issue. They do, however, understand the issue. Yet all too often Americans' fairly sophisticated view of immigration is simplified. And that simplification tends to skew the facts.

Friday's New York Times exemplified the problem. The nation's premier newspaper reported on a new immigration study. "In 14 of the 25 largest metropolitan areas," the story read, "more immigrants are employed in white-collar occupations than in lower-wage work like construction, manufacturing or cleaning.

"The data belie a common perception in the nation's hard-fought debate over immigration -- articulated by lawmakers, pundits and advocates on all sides of the issue -- that the surge in immigration in the last two decades has overwhelmed the United States with low-wage foreign laborers," the Times continued.

But the study's findings actually substantiate those "common perceptions."

The public perceives illegal immigrants as significantly more likely to be "low-wage foreign laborers" and add to the ranks of those relying on public and private social services. However, cherry pick the facts and another conclusion could be reached.

"Overall, 48 percent of immigrants work in white-collar jobs-managerial, professional, sales, and administrative support. By comparison, 52 percent work in service, blue-collar, or farming, fishing and forestry jobs," according to the nonpartisan Fiscal Policy Institute study, commissioned by the Times. This is the picture that emerges from all 25 cities studied.

The Times conflates views on legal and illegal immigrants. The issue is not what it reports, but what the Times does not.

Only about one in 10 illegal immigrants work in white-collar professions, the study concluded.

"There is no doubt that undocumented workers are much more likely to be in lower skilled jobs and much more likely to have less education," said David Kallick, the principal author of immigration analysis. The authoritative 2009 Pew Hispanic Center study -- that Kallick's analysis relied upon to track unauthorized immigrants' employment -- sheds more light on the gap between legal and illegal immigrants.

Pew found that 35 percent of legal immigrants have at least a bachelor's degree, three points above the level for the U.S.-born workforce. By comparison, less than half as many illegal immigrants, 15 percent, have a bachelor's degree.

The differences between legal and illegal immigrants are inseparable from how Americans view the two. In 2007, with Washington debating immigration reform, polling organizations looked more deeply into the issue. An ABC News poll asked if illegal immigrants help or hurt the country. It asked the same question about legal immigrants. A majority of Americans, 54 percent, said illegal immigrants "do more to hurt the country." Yet 59 percent said legal immigrants "do more to help the country."

The same trend is visible in key swing states like Ohio. About two-thirds of Ohioans said illegal immigrants "hurt the country" while nearly three-quarters believe legal immigrants "help the country," according to a Quinnipiac poll in 2007.

The "why" behind this legality fault line is more complicated. Americans' concern about legal status is intractable from the correlated issues.

It's not generally a matter of job competition. At least a majority, 56 percent, believe that illegal immigrants "mostly take jobs that nobody wants," according to a 2007 Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll. Other polls show more than two-thirds share this view.

There is however an absence of detailed data on the Great Recession's impact on the jobs issue. At least two-thirds of all job losses in the recession are among blue collar workers. And as studies indicate, most illegal immigrants are blue collar.

We do know from a recent M.I.T. and Harvard study, also citied by the Times, that six in 10 Americans oppose an increase in low-skilled immigration. And as noted above, illegal immigration strongly correlates to low-skilled immigration.

Cultural protectionism is likely not a major factor either. A 2007 Gallup poll, while it failed to differentiate legal status, clarifies this point. Based on six issues, Gallup asked Americans "whether immigrants to the United States are making the situation in the country better or worse?" The only issue that a plurality said "better," 40 percent, was "food, music and the arts." The majority said "worse" on the issues of crime and taxes.

Taxes especially evoke why, to Americans, illegal immigration concerns social services. More than two-thirds of voters view illegal immigrants as a significant strain on the U.S. budget, according to a recent Rasmussen poll.

Moreover, according to a 2006 Rasmussen poll, about six in 10 Americans favor an immigration policy that "welcomes all immigrants except national security threats, criminals, and those who would come here to live off the U.S. welfare system." Illegal immigrants are ineligible for welfare. But "welfare system" tends to be a catchall for the public's anxiety about strained safety nets (such as the use of emergency rooms for healthcare needs). 

The poverty rate for adult illegal immigrants is 21 percent, compared to 13 percent for legal immigrant adults and 10 percent for U.S.-born adults, according to Pew.

Pew also finds that 47 percent of illegal immigrants are not high school graduates, compared to only 22 percent of legal immigrants and 8 percent of Americans.

This is one reason immigration is such a divisive issue. It relates to many of the most contentious issues. We know from polls that a majority of Americans believe illegal immigrants in the nation will, and should, be offered a path to citizenship or be allowed to stay as guest workers. Notably, polls show they favor such a policy in conjunction with increased border security. The 2007 LA Times/Bloomberg poll placed the number in favor of citizenship at six in 10. A 2009 CBS/New York Times poll found that 44 percent, the plurality, favor a path to citizenship while 22 percent favor a guest worker status. Americans appear to link the immigration issue to the hotly debated subject of safety nets, from welfare to healthcare, perhaps for this reason. They believe it's likely many illegal immigrants will one day become eligible for these programs. About six in 10 illegal immigrants lack health insurance, more than twice the level for legal immigrants and about six times the rate of U.S. adults.

In fact, most Americans view the availability -- or the potential availability -- of safety nets as magnet for illegal immigration. The recent Rasmussen poll found that about two-thirds of voters believe that the "availability of government money and services draw illegal immigrants" to the nation.

Some read this desire to limit illegal and low-skilled immigrants as callus. But the United States has unique problems. It is the only first world nation that shares a land border with a third world nation (providing Turkey is considered second world). Yet it is also uniquely open to immigrants. The United States accepts more legal immigrants as permanent residents than all other nations combined, according to a 2006 Department of State report.

It's clear Americans favor more skilled legal immigrants. Far more difficult is creating a policy that meets that public desire. There are several proposals in Congress to encourage the immigration of highly skilled or well-educated immigrants. It will be an uphill battle.

Back in 2007, with Congress mired in the immigration debate, a bipartisan Senate proposal for a "merit-based system" infuriated some activists. The proposal would have used a point system to weigh desired skills, similar to programs used from England to Australia to Canada.

"At best, Congress might set up a pilot program. That's probably the best scenario for points system advocates," said Cornell University's Stephen Yale-Loehr, one of the nation's leading experts on immigration law and an advocate of a merit-based system. But Yale-Loehr added, "It's probably unlikely. Points systems are very contentious."

The most active advocates for immigration reform are Hispanic groups. These groups also strictly oppose a merit-based system.

Hispanics are disproportionately represented among illegal and blue collar immigrants. That means a merit-based path to citizenship would disproportionately disfavor Hispanics. About six in ten illegal immigrants are from Mexico. In total, more than three quarters of illegal immigrants come from Central and South America, Pew finds.

Of course, low-skilled immigrant workers remain crucial to the U.S. economy. No serious merit-based proposal blocks low-skill immigrants or refugees. It's a matter of emphasis.

And so it is also, at minimum, a matter of emphasis for the public as well. Americans' preference for skilled legal immigrants concerns both "skill" and "legal." But too many focus on the latter and ignore the former.

In the end, all sides agree that the immigration issue will prove exceedingly difficult to resolve in the years to come. But resolution is surely impossible if we don't properly understand what Americans view as the issue.

David Paul Kuhn is the Chief Political Correspondent for RealClearPolitics and the author of The Neglected Voter: White Men and the Democratic Dilemma. He can be reached at and his writing followed via RSS.

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