December 13, 2007

2007 National Survey of Latinos: As Illegal Immigration Issue Heats Up, Hispanics Feel a Chill

V. Views About Immigrants

The survey probes Hispanic attitudes towards immigrants through three questions. One asks about the impact of illegal immigrants on the economy, and another about the impact of illegal immigrants on Hispanics in general. A third asks respondents whether they believe the number of immigrants living in the United States is too high, too low or the right amount.

Half of Latinos surveyed say illegal immigrants are having a positive impact on Hispanics living in this country (only one-in-five says the impact is negative). A much heavier majority—75%—say they are helping rather than hurting the economy. Views are more mixed on the question about the number of immigrants living in this country. Latinos are split evenly between those who say there are too many and those who say the right amount (while fewer than one-in-ten say too few). Notably, foreign-born Latinos are more likely than native-born Latinos to say there are too many immigrants. By contrast, on the two questions about illegal immigrants, the foreign born are more inclined than the native born to see positive impacts.

The survey also shows that Hispanics draw a distinction between the number of immigrants and the impact of illegal immigrants. For instance, many who believe there are too many immigrants respond favorably with respect to the impact of illegal immigrants on the economy and on Hispanics. Latino views on immigration also vary by other characteristics, such as English ability, years lived in the United States, country of origin and education level.

The Impact of Illegal Immigrants on the Economy

A big majority of Hispanics believe that illegal immigrants benefit the economy. When asked which of two statements they agree with—“Illegal immigrants help the economy by providing low-cost labor” or “Illegal immigrants hurt the economy by driving wages down”—some 75% of Latinos choose the former. Only 17% of Hispanics say illegal immigrants hurt the economy. These proportions are similar to responses in the 2002 and 2006 National Surveys of Latinos.

There is a divide by nativity on this question. Some 82% of foreign-born Latinos, compared with just 64% of native-born Latinos, say illegal immigrants help the economy. However, the share of native-born Latinos saying illegal immigrants help the economy is higher now than in 2002, when 54% said so. The share had increased to 65% by 2006, about the same as it is today.

The Impact of Illegal Immigrants on Hispanics

By a ratio of more than two-to-one, Hispanics believe that the growing number of illegal immigrants has been a positive, not a negative, development for Latinos in the United States. Some 50% of Latinos say it has been a positive development; 20% say it has been a negative development; and 20% say it has had no impact.

Once again, there is a difference in opinion by nativity on this issue. While the majority (57%) of foreign-born Latinos say illegal immigration has been a positive development for Latinos, only 41% of native-born Latinos agree. Also, only 14% of foreign-born Latinos say illegal immigration has been a negative development, compared with twice as large a proportion (29%) of the native born.

The Number of Immigrants

Hispanics are divided on the question of whether there are too many or the right amount of immigrants—42% say there are too many and 41% say the amount is right. There is a gap in opinion on this question by nativity, but not in the direction found in many of the other questions asked in this survey. Foreign-born Hispanics are more likely than native-born Hispanics to say there are too many immigrants (47% versus 35%), while 46% of native-born and 37% of foreign-born Latinos say the number of immigrants is the right amount.

The question on the amount of immigrants was also asked in 2002. At that time, 49% of Hispanics said there were too many immigrants. Even though the foreign-born population in the United States has increased by about 5 million since then, a smaller proportion of Latinos (42%) in this new survey say there are too many immigrants. Some of this shift in opinion may reflect a change in economic circumstances. The economy was in the midst of a post-recession slowdown in 2002, and the Hispanic unemployment rate was much higher then than it is now.

The decline in the share of Latinos who say there are too many immigrants could also reflect an expression of solidarity among Hispanics in light of the increased attention to immigration. The change in attitudes on this question has occurred principally among native-born Hispanics. In 2002, 47% of native-born Latinos said there were too many immigrants, but only 35% say so in 2007. The change has been much more modest among foreign-born Latinos—51% said there were too many immigrants in 2002, compared with 47% in 2007.

Why Are There Too Many or Too Few Immigrants?

Respondents who said either that there are too many immigrants or too few immigrants were also asked an open-ended question to state their reasons.

Among those who say there are too many immigrants, many (38%) give a general and non-specific reason: either that there are enough or too many illegal immigrants. Just 7% indicate that employment concerns are the reason they said there are too many immigrants.

Among those who say there are too few immigrants, the top reasons given are that immigrants have a positive impact on employment (18%), immigrants contribute to diversity (16%) and there currently are not a lot of immigrants (16%).

Correlation of Views on Amount of Immigrants and Illegal Immigrants

The survey shows that Latino views on immigration are not subject to easy generalizations. Among foreign-born Hispanics, in particular, opinions on the impact of illegal immigrants are independent of opinions on the right number of immigrants. However, there is a correlation between the views of native-born Latinos on the number of immigrants and their opinions about the effects of illegal immigration.

Regardless of whether foreign-born Latinos believe there are too many, too few or the right number of immigrants, about eight-in-ten say that illegal immigrants are helpful to the economy. Similarly, regardless of their views on the amount of immigrants, about six-in-ten foreign-born Latinos say that illegal immigration has been a positive development for Hispanics.

In contrast, among native-born Hispanics, those who say the number of immigrants in the United States is the right amount are much more likely to hold a positive opinion of illegal immigration than those who say there are “too many” immigrants. Some 72% of native-born Latinos who believe the number of immigrants is the right amount also say illegal immigrants help the economy, compared with just 53% of those who say there are too many immigrants. Conversely, native-born Hispanics who say there are too many immigrants are about twice as likely as those who say the amount is right—39% versus 20%—to say illegal immigrants hurt the economy.

A similar divide exists among native-born Latinos with respect to the effect of illegal immigrants on Hispanics. Those who believe the number of immigrants is the right amount are more likely to say illegal immigration has been a positive development than those who say there are too many immigrants—44% versus 33%. Also, while just 27% of the former group says illegal immigration has been a negative development, some 38% of the latter group of native-born Latinos feel this way.

Correlation of Views on the Impacts of Illegal Immigrants

Among Latinos, views about the impact of illegal immigrants on the economy do not always match views about their impact on Hispanics living in this country. For example, some 90% of foreign-born Hispanics who say that illegal immigration has been a positive development for the Hispanic community also say it has been beneficial for the U.S. economy. But even 62% of those who believe that illegal immigration has been a negative development for the Latino community believe it has helped the economy.

Native-born Hispanics with a negative opinion on the impact of illegal immigration on the Hispanic community are evenly divided (45% each) on whether it helps or hurts the economy. But those who feel positive about the effects of illegal immigration on Hispanics overwhelmingly agree (79% to 14%) that illegal immigration helps rather than hurts the economy.

An Overarching View of Hispanic Attitudes Toward Immigration

Are there Hispanics who have a consistently negative or positive attitude toward immigration? This question arises because of the differing nature of the questions asked in the survey and the mixed answers provided by respondents.

In answer to this question, Figure 22 shows the results of an analysis based on combining the responses to the three questions on attitudes toward immigration. Respondents are classified into one of three groups. Those who responded that there are too many immigrants, that illegal immigrants hurt the economy and that illegal immigrants have been a negative development for Hispanics are defined to hold a negative view of immigration. Respondents who said that the number of immigrants is too few or the right amount and that illegal immigrants help the economy and have been a positive development for the community are defined to have a positive view of immigration. All other respondents are said to hold a mixed view of immigration.

The vast majority of Hispanics (73%) have a mixed view, believing there are both positive and negative aspects to immigration. That is not surprising in light of the analysis above that highlighted the distinctions Latinos make in other questions in this survey. Some 23% of Hispanics possess a uniformly positive view of immigrants and only 4% hold a uniformly negative view of the number of immigrants and the impact of illegal immigration.

The Role of Language

The language in which a person is proficient shows a strong relationship with attitudes toward immigrants, and that is true whether the person is foreign born or native born. Among foreign-born Latinos, bilingual individuals are less likely than those who are Spanish dominant to say there are too many immigrants. However, they hold a less favorable opinion of illegal immigration. Among native-born Latinos, bilinguals are slightly more likely than English-dominant people to say there are too many immigrants, but they have a more favorable opinion of illegal immigration.

With regard to the number of immigrants, Spanish-dominant immigrants are more likely than bilingual immigrants to say there are too many immigrants in the United States (52% versus 38%), while bilingual immigrants are more likely than Spanish-dominant immigrants to think the current number of immigrants is the right amount (43% versus 34%).

It is not clear why Spanish-dominant immigrants are more likely to state there are too many immigrants in the United States. One possibility is that they are less assimilated, economically and culturally, and feel greater pressure from growing numbers of immigrants. However, the attitudes of these immigrants with regard to the impact of illegal immigrants on the economy and on Hispanics stand in contrast to this hypothesis.

Spanish-dominant immigrants overwhelmingly (87%) believe that illegal immigrants are helpful to the economy. That compares with 75% of bilingual immigrants who feel the same way. Similarly, 62% of Spanish-dominant immigrants feel illegal immigration has been a positive development for the Hispanic community, and only 10% say it has been a negative development. That compares with 47% and 20%, respectively, among bilingual immigrants.

The views of bilingual native-born Hispanics are very similar to the views of bilingual foreign-born Hispanics. Some 37% of bilingual native-born Latinos say there are too many immigrants; 70% believe illegal immigrants help the economy; and 49% say illegal immigration has been a positive development for Hispanics. That compares with 38%, 75% and 47%, respectively, among bilingual immigrants.

Native-born Hispanics who are English dominant have more negative views of illegal immigration. They are the most likely to say that it hurts the economy (31%) and that it has been a negative development for Hispanics (38%).

The Role of Education

Hispanics who have attended or graduated from college, whether they are native born or foreign born, generally have a less favorable view about the impact of illegal immigration than do less-educated Hispanics.

However, the pattern is reversed when it comes to the number of immigrants: The likelihood of saying the number of immigrants is the right amount increases with a person’s level of education.

Nearly half (46%) of foreign-born Hispanics who have attended college say the number of immigrants is the right amount. That is higher than the share of high school graduates (35%) and those who did not finish high school (34%) giving the same response. And while about 50% of foreign-born Hispanics who attended or graduated from high school say there are too many immigrants, only 36% of those who have at least some college share that opinion. A similar pattern by level of education is apparent among native-born Hispanics.

With respect to the impact of illegal immigration, less-educated Hispanics are more likely to say the impact has been positive. Some 84% of foreign-born Latinos whose education ended with high school say illegal immigrants help the economy, compared with 77% of those who attended or graduated from college. Similarly, about 60% of those with a high school diploma or lower level of education say illegal immigration has been a positive development for Hispanics, compared with 52% of those with some college or higher level of education. Immigrants who have attended or graduated from college are twice as likely as other immigrants (21% versus 11%) to say illegal immigration has been a negative development.

The belief that illegal immigration has been a negative development for the Hispanic community is most widespread among native-born Latinos with some college education or a college degree—some 37% feel this way.

Other Factors That Shape Hispanic Attitudes Toward Immigration

Among the other factors that correlate with Latinos’ attitudes toward immigration are country of origin and years of residence in the United States. Attitudes of Latinos of Mexican origin tend to closely mirror opinions among all Hispanics—mainly because this origin group makes up more than 60% of the total Latino population. Among other major origin groups, Puerto Ricans and Cubans agree with the overall Hispanic population in their views about the number of immigrants. However, they are more likely than Mexicans and Central Americans to say that illegal immigration hurts the economy; and they are more likely than all other Hispanics to say that it has been a negative development for Hispanics.

The number of years an immigrant has lived in the United States shows a mixed pattern in relation to attitudes toward immigration. Those who have been in the United States for five years or fewer are most likely to say there are too many immigrants—56%, compared with 47% for all Latino immigrants—and these new arrivals are least likely to say the number is the right amount—26% versus 37% for all foreign-born Latinos.

When it comes to the impact of illegal immigrants, newly arrived immigrants, along with those who have been here for six to 20 years, are more likely than long-term immigrants to say illegal immigrants have been helpful to the economy. However, newly arrived immigrants are less likely than average to consider illegal immigration a positive development for Hispanics. In that opinion, they agree with long-term immigrants, those who have been in the United States for 21 years or longer.