Immigration, Economic Insecurity, and the “Ambivalent” American Public (Working Paper #41)

Alan Kessler, Center for Comparative Immigration Studies and University of Texas – Austin

Abstract: Are public attitudes toward immigration policy in the United States driven by economic or non-economic concerns? Though systematic analyses are few, a burgeoning literature suggests that cultural norms and enduring values, rather than calculations of self-interest, determine immigration policy preferences. This paper challenges the contention that economic motivations play little or no role in the formation of immigration policy preferences. Drawing on recent work in political economy, I argue that individual preferences over immigration policy reflect economic and non-economic concerns – both broadly rooted in considerations of individual self-interest. While affective orientations toward ethnic groups and prejudice clearly underlie public attitudes toward immigration policy, analysts err in discounting an economic interpretation of immigration policy preferences. In fact, multivariate analysis of 1992 through 2000 National Election Study surveys reveals a robust link between an individual’s position in the labor market and immigration policy. Respondents at the lower end of the nation’s occupational and/or educational distribution are more likely to oppose increased immigration, as the Heckscher-Ohlin model of international trade implies.

Working Paper #41»