The United States often celebrates its status as a nation of immigrants. It is the number one immigrant destination in the world, with a foreign-born population comprising 41 million persons, 61 percent of whom have entered since 2000.
In recent years, however, vitriolic characterizations of immigrants and draconian plans for their exclusion have been floated by political candidates to a surprisingly receptive public. While the U.S. extended refugee status to 3 million persons since 1975, only about 28 percent of the American public currently endorses the continued admission of Syrian refugees. Only 1,854 Syrian refugees—mostly single mothers and their children—have been granted entry between 2012 and September 2015. Recent expressions of hostility towards immigrants and refugees and the adoption of an anti-immigrant platform by the Republican Party are regarded by editorial writers and other pundits as evidence of a fundamental transformation in American attitudes towards migration (Fox 2014). Is anti-immigrant sentiment a recent phenomenon? If so, what is the source of this dramatic transformation?
Sociologists and other scholars of migration have much to offer to our understanding of changing attitudes towards immigration. They have studied popular reactions towards international migration for decades, among a wide range of groups and locations, under various social and economic conditions, using diverse methods (Gold and Nawyn 2013). Contrary to the dramatic pronouncements of editorial writers, sociologists often refer to institutional and historical reasons to account for public perceptions about the place of immigrants in American society. Sociologists might attribute these sentiments to the increased opportunity of individuals, social movements, and political organizations to elicit and reward such opinions through an array of forums that have become available only recently.
Longstanding Anti-Immigrant Views
Putting beliefs on immigration into historical context can help us realize how we got to where we are today. The historical record reveals that from the late 19th century until the dawn of the Cold War, hostility towards immigration has been significant and often incorporated into governmental action. An array of laws, including the Johnson Reed Act, excluded immigrants from various countries and capped the total number of entrants to 150,000 annually from the 1920s until the passage of the Hart Cellar Act of 1965. In July 1938, two-thirds of Americans surveyed agreed with the proposition that “we should try to keep them out” regarding political refugees fleeing fascist states in Europe—the vast majority of whom were Jewish (Tharoor 2015)
From the dawn of the Cold War until the late 1980s, international concerns rather than public opinion drove U.S. immigration policy. As research has found, seeking to discredit communism, rules regarding immigration and the admission of refugees were implemented by a bipartisan Washington consensus. Within this context, the admission of several million persons from Cuba, Southeast Asia, and the Soviet Bloc, together with generous support for their resettlement, was quickly approved.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the Cold War context and unprecedented prosperity did reverse a degree of popular antipathy towards the admission of migrants and refugees. In 1965, efforts to appeal to recently independent nations and the pro-equality climate of the Voting Rights Act, which passed that same year, resulted in the enactment of the relatively unpopular Hart Cellar immigration bill. This bill removed nationality quotas and played a major role in increasing the arrival of immigrants to the United States. (even as its framers assured the public that it would not transform the demography of the American people).
Popular support for the acceptance of immigrants and refugees, however, proved to be fleeting. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, a revival of calls for restrictions on immigrants was documented. A 1979 Gallop poll revealed that 57 percent of the public opposed admitting the Vietnamese boat people and 32 percent favored their admission. In a March 1982 Roper Survey, 66 percent of those polled said they wanted immigration cut back and only 4 percent said they wanted more aliens admitted (Harwood 1986).
The staying power of the bipartisan consensus on immigration can be seen in the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. It provided permanent residency to approximately 2.6 million formerly undocumented immigrants who had been living in theUnited States prior to 1982, and for the first time penalized employers for hiring undocumented workers.
Politicization of Anti-immigration Movements
A few years after the passage of IRCA, local and international political events had the effect of unraveling consensus on immigration. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that the Cold War agenda lost its influence as the major factor shaping bipartisan policy. This opened the door for using resentment against immigration as a wedge issue on the local, state, and national level.
Pete Wilson, incumbent governor of California who was doing poorly in the polls as he faced reelection in 1994, demonstrated the electoral potential of anti-immigrant opinion. Basing his campaign on the negative effects of immigration and endorsing the “Save Our State” Proposition 187, which sought to deny an array of benefits for undocumented immigrants, Wilson was able to mobilize voters and win re-election (Zolberg 2007). Prop 187 was approved by a majority of white, black, and Asian voters and enjoyed the support of nearly a third of Latinos, despite its targeting Mexican migrants as the source of California’s social and economic troubles.
Following the success of anti-immigrant mobilization, California voters were provided the opportunity to express their hostility towards benefits for immigrants (and others) in an anti-affirmative action proposition (Prop 209 of 1996), and an anti-bilingual education measure (Prop 227 of 1998), both of which passed. While Proposition 187 was declared unconstitutional, the electoral rewards generated by appealing to popular hostility to immigrants were clearly demonstrated by the success of the Wilson strategy.
Since then, the advent of cable news, the Internet, and social media have created additional venues for anti-immigrant sentiments. Their mobilization has shaped the fate of individual candidates, legislative agendas, organizations and social movements on the local, state, and national level.
However, just as Governor Wilson discovered the political rewards of cultivating anti-immigrant sentiment, other prescient observers found that mustering the votes of first-generation citizens and their allies became easier in the wake of anti-immigrant mobilizing (Portes and Rumbaut 2014). Hopeful Democrats assume that favorable demographics might turn "red" states with significant migrant populations such as Texas and Arizona "blue," thus brightening long-term prospects for their party in environments where it currently holds little sway.
In retrospect, there are several outcomes reflecting the increased politicization of anti-immigrant attitudes. First, the politicization of anti-immigrant sentiment has been a successful strategy, at least in the short term. Just as the adoption and encouragement of an anti-immigrant agenda turned the tide for Governor Wilson in 1994, so has it mobilized voters in a variety of other locations.
Despite the growing demand for harsh anti-immigrant policies, few of the goals of such movements—including the denial of basic rights and public services for undocumented immigrants, the mass deportation of migrant populations, the suspension of “birthright citizenship,” and other measures—have been implemented. This is largely because these matters are beyond the influence of the electoral constituencies calling for such changes.
Even with the widely observed opposition between Republicans and immigrant communities, the political landscape is not immune to change. Factors such as the short attention span of voters, the appeal of new agendas, and the imagination of political operatives have been known to redirect public opinion in short notice. The successes of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio in the Iowa Caucus suggests that Latino candidates—albeit ones who minimize their linkage with immigrant communities (at least when campaigning in heavily white primary states)—may appeal to voters who recently embraced xenophobic agendas (Suro 2016).
Finally, because President Obama’s administration has maintained an unprecedented program of immigrant deportation, which remains a source of conflict with the very constituencies who are seen as insuring Democratic Party dominance, good relations with pro-immigrant constituencies could potentially disintegrate (Golash-Boza 2011).
The degree of anti-immigrant sentiment currently displayed in U.S. society is sizeable and strongly felt. However, despite aphorisms about America’s status as “a nation of immigrants,” evidence of anti-immigrant sentiment is clear and longstanding among wide swaths of the public. The reasons for its recent acceptability might be partly attributable to opportunities to express opposition to immigration in a manner that would have been politically unacceptable prior to the 1990s. In this way, analyses presented by sociologists and other scholars of migration can help us account for changes in popular views of immigration.
- Fox, Lauren. 2014. Anti-Immigrant Hate Coming From Everyday Americans. US News and World Report. July 24.
- Golash-Boza, Tanya. 2011. Immigration Nation?: Raids, Detentions and Deportations in Post-911 America 2011. Paradigm Publishers.
- Gold, Steven J. and Stephanie J. Nawyn.2013. The Routledge International Handbook of Migration Studies, London and New York: Routledge.
- Harwood, Edwin 1986 “American Public Opinion and U. S. Immigration Policy” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 487, Immigration and American Public Policy (Sep): 201-212.
- Portes, Alejandro and Ruben Rumbaut 2014. Immigrant American: A Portrait 4e. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
- Suro, Robert 2016 Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio Made History. Didn’t You Hear? New York Times, February 3.
- Tharoor, Ishaan 2015. “What Americans thought of Jewish refugees on the eve of World War II” Washington Post, wapo.com November 17.
- Zolberg, Aristide, 2007. Immigration Control Policy: Law and Implementation. Pp. 30-42 in Mary Waters and Reed Ueda with Helen B. Marrow (eds.) The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration Since 1965. Cambridge, Harvard.