Security, race, or culture?

From a recent CNN survey:

Is there a racist overtone to the immigration debate?

“Most Americans don’t think so, and most Hispanics share that view,” says Holland. “Overall only 20 percent of all Americans think that people who favor tough laws against illegal immigrants do so because they dislike Hispanics; among Hispanics, that number rises to 34 percent, but a majority of Hispanics believe that the supporters of tough new laws are motivated more by concerns over economic conditions and law enforcement issues.”

(See full article here:

This is certainly an important question: whether or not conservative immigration policy preferences are motivated by security and safety concerns or racial prejudice. This finding would seem to paint a rosy picture: only 1 in 5 think that it’s motivated by racism as opposed to security and economic concerns.

Unfortunately, CNN failed to ask about another key motive behind conservative immigration preferences: nativism, the attitude that a distinctly American culture and way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence. Also, asking what people think about what other people think can be a sloppy way to measure policy attitude motivations.

I presented a paper in 2009 at the American Political Science Association Conference that examined the extent to which these competing factors influenced conservative immigration policy preferences. I found that nativism, anti-Hispanic prejudice, and security/law enforcement concerns are all about equally responsible for driving conservative immigration preferences (like the recent Arizona law), and that economic concerns and low levels of religiosity also play a role, but to a lesser degree.

In sum, immigration attitudes do not split so cleanly between “security/economy” and “racial” motivations. There is also the cultural factor to consider and it plays a very strong role in driving conservative attitudes toward immigration policy. 

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