Changing Views on Immigration

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It’s no secret that the demographics of the United States are shifting. White Americans comprise just above half of the youngest two generations, while they remain a strong majority in older generations.

Never has the makeup of the country become such a core part of the national discourse as in the lead-up to the 2016 election.

Diverging Views

Wildly different views on the direction of the country and varying degrees of “traditional” (patriotic) nationalism create divisions between young and old, rural and urban, white and non-white. One way to gauge differences is by looking at views on immigration.

In our latest study, we asked respondents whether they agree “Right now, immigration is bad for the U.S.”

Self-reported generation, urbanicity, race/ethnicity, and nativity – somewhat predictably – impact likelihood to view immigration as a negative for the country. At a high level, just over a third of consumers have a negative view of immigration. The statement “Right now, immigration is bad for the U.S.” garnered relatively low agreement.

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A Shift with Age

When looking at this same attitude broken out by generation, some clear differences emerge. The two youngest generations are much less inclined to view immigration in a negative light. Gen-Zers and millennials are 11% less likely to feel this way.

This comfort with immigration is largely driven the inherent diversity among younger generations.

In contrast, both gen-Xers and boomers+ are more likely than average to say immigration is bad. Although we sometimes see that gen-Xers behave similarly to millennials when it comes to things like social issues, in this particular case they align more with older respondents.

Sub-dividing the youngest two generations into roughly five-year segments reveals a similar trend. Agreement that “Right now, immigration is bad for the U.S.” is generally low among the youngest gen-Z and millennial segments. However, this does start to shift with the oldest millennials.

The Rural, Urban Divide

Right now, the rural – urban divide is reaching its own zeitgeist. This split was at the core of the election and is central to understanding the differing attitudes of Americans. Those who self-report living in rural areas are more likely than self-reported urban dwellers to feel immigration is bad. Forty-one percent of rural respondents agree that right now immigration is bad, compared to just 24% of urban respondents.

This aligns with the common refrain that rural areas are more skeptical of immigration because of economic concerns: that immigrants will take some of the finite number of jobs. However, this is also compounded by the fact that rural areas are predominantly white.

Role of Race / Ethnicity

White Americans are slowly losing their standing as a vast majority of the country. They’re more likely than minorities to see immigration as a negative, at 40%. Hispanic, Asian, and black Americans all feel more favorably.

Perhaps the least surprising demographic that yields variation is nativity. Foreign-born are a full 10% less likely than average to agree, at 25%. Native-born are essentially as likely to agree as the total since they are the vast majority of the population (in essence they are the total). The more positive attitude towards immigration among first-generation Americans makes sense (they were immigrants after all) though it’s hardly universal. As we’ve seen repeatedly in our work, foreign-born individuals’ attitudes to immigration are never 100% positive.

There is a sizeable chunk of Americans who have an unfavorable view of the influx of people from other nations and the shifting makeup of the country. They tend to be older, more rural, whiter, and native-born.

The younger, more diverse, generations are driving changing attitudes towards immigration. Their views are more positive. While immigration was far from the only issue at play, a higher proportion of older voters supported Trump, and younger voters showed a preference for Clinton. These attitudinal shifts are tangible and far-reaching. While this didn’t swing the election in Clinton’s favor, its impact on upcoming election cycles is only set to increase.  Especially as gen-Z – who generally favor broader socially liberal causes – get set to vote.

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