Immigration, particularly undocumented immigration, is a hot-button political issue. Polls consistently show Americans are concerned about the flow, control, and punishment of undocumented immigrants. Previous sociological inquiry has highlighted how, when people think minority groups pose a threat to their interests, they are more likely to support anti-immigration stances.
Ted Chiricos and colleagues use a national survey of non-Latino respondents to investigate the role of context in attitudes supporting stronger border control (such as increased manpower at boundaries) and internal controls (such as not allowing undocumented immigrants to receive welfare). They find their respondents’ personal characteristics, such as education level and non-white race, are associated with lower levels of support for both types of immigration control, whereas characteristics such as a conservative political persuasion and living in a border state increase support for controls.
The researchers also look at how perceived threats affect individuals’ stances on immigration control. Dynamic changes in the unemployment rate (an economic threat) and the ratio of Latinos to non-Latinos (a cultural threat) both increase support for internal immigration regulation, but not border controls. Such changes in demographic context may be more noticeable to individuals than static observations. Chiricos and colleagues also show that people’s perception of the threat of immigration mediates many personal and contextual factors in forming their opinions. That is, it’s the sense of threat, rather than the existence of one, that drives attitudes toward immigration policy.
Community changes can sway immigration attitudes when the changes are perceived as legitimate cultural or economic threats. Thus, when citizens, pundits, and politicians label social changes as “threats,” they can shift popular opinion toward closed (and closely guarded) borders.