A Thaw in the Ice Over Immigration?

5.28.13 | Half of Americans overstate unauthorized immigration levels into the United States, yet while Americans overestimate the number of undocumented immigrants, they are less threatened by illegal immigration now than at any point since 1994, a new national survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds. In 1994, fully 72% of those surveyed said that the surge of immigrants was a critical threat to the country. In 2012, that share had fallen to 40%.

Further, only 31% believe immigrants in the U.S. illegally should be required to leave their jobs and leave the United States. Another 25% believe they should be able to stay in their jobs and apply for eventual citizenship. Partisan differences on these questions are stark, however.

The issues of immigration are no longer confined to large cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Cities such as Charlotte, Minneapolis, Sacramento, or Austin are original landing places for increasing numbers of immigrants. And as Brookings Institution scholar Audrey Singer established in her book, “Twenty-First Century Gateways,” the suburbs, not the inner city, are increasingly the preferred original destination of new immigrants. As is the case with growing poverty in the suburbs, these locales are often unprepared to address issues of integration and incorporation, they lack support services, and the strain on public services such as schools comes as a surprise. (The two–immigration and poverty–are not unrelated. According to Urban Institute scholar Karina Fortuny, in 2010, 21% percent of children of immigrants were in poverty, a rate that is higher than the 15%  of children of native-born parents. Nearly half of children of immigrants, live in low-income families, compared with 35 percent of children of natives.)

In the 1990s and early 2000s, many of these cities and suburbs were unprepared for the sudden change in population and culture, whether that be the mushrooming of new bodegas or restaurants or Spanish-only masses and church services, or the prejudice and fears of long-time residents that life as they know it has suddenly and inexplicably changed. The poster child for a reactionary backlash was Hazelton, PA, which implemented a local ordinance (later ruled unconstitutional) that targeted illegal immigrants and those who did business with them. But there were many other small and mid-sized metro areas that grappled with the surge of new residents seeking work in poultry plants, meat-packing plants, or construction.

But if the recent survey is an indication, one wonders whether this dispersal of immigrants to smaller cities and to the suburbs might be also helping to make the issue less contentious. When a person lives next to you as a neighbor, you’re less likely to make sweeping generalizations, good or bad. And as immigrants dispersed to smaller cities and the suburbs, more people outside of large cities have a chance to meet and know a recent immigrant personally. In addition, the surge in immigration has made U.S. metros more diverse. According to the Urban Institute, by 2008, 38.3 percent of people living in the top 100 metros were Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, or African American, compared to only 27.7 percent in 1990.

That is not to say we’ve achieved a kumbaya moment. Tempers still run hot in many locales, and the immigration reform bills wending their way through Congress are no easy passes. The rhetoric is also once again heating up with the ‘gang of eight’ in the House.

Assimilation–particularly learning English— is a prickly issue for many Americans, according to the Council’s survey, with Mexican immigrants singled out. Only 23% of Republicans think Mexican immigrants make enough effort to learn English, while 52% of Democrats and 47% of Independents think they do. As the survey report notes:

Those who think illegal immigration has increased over the past year are less likely to say that Mexican immigrants to the United States learn English, respect the law, and integrate into American life. Mexicans in the United States are, however, viewed as working hard, regardless of the perceptions of unauthorized immigration. Overall, almost nine in ten Americans say that most Mexican immigrants to the United States work hard (87%, up from 82% in 2004), and more say that most Mexican immigrants respect the law than not (53% versus 43%). But Americans are evenly divided on whether most Mexican immigrants integrate into American life (48% yes, 48% no), and a majority continues to say that most Mexican immigrants do not learn English (57% versus 39% yes).

The debate on immigration reform will be a long one. BRR’s Manuel Pastor and Justin Scoggins take the long view in their report, “Citizen Gain.” They find the larger economy gains from immigration and citizenship in particular. “Citizenship, alone,” the report notes, “can boost individual earnings by 8 to 11%, leading to a potential $21-45 billion increase in cumulative earnings over ten years that will have ripple effects on the national economy.”

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