Government & Politics

Neil Malhotra: Are Americans’ Fears of Immigration Overstated?

A new study explores the evidence behind the idea that people oppose immigration because they fear losing their job.

September 30, 2013

| by Janine Zacharia
A billboard on Highway 101 near South San Francisco

A billboard on Highway 101 near South San Francisco (Photo by Peter DaSilva/New York Times/Redux)

Polls of Americans’ views on immigration are generally sweeping. Questions are usually general and the results seemingly decisive. One recent survey found 70% of Americans thought allowing more immigrants would make it harder to find jobs. In a separate poll, only 29% said the United States should admit as many high-skilled foreign workers as companies wanted to hire. And 61% said there should be restrictions.

Answers to such polls can have profound implications for how legislators perceive immigration. But they often fail to get to the heart of why people feel the way they do about the issue. And the results, even worse, can oftentimes be misleading, researchers say. In fact, a new study led by a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business has found that polling has somewhat overstated Americans’ economic fears about immigration.

Although the researchers found evidence that people oppose immigration because they fear losing their jobs, the results are not as dramatic as traditional, broad surveys would suggest. “The influence of economic threat, while real, is limited,” wrote Stanford’s Neil Malhotra, Columbia University’s Yotam Margalit, and Vanderbilt University’s Cecilia Hyunjung Mo (2009 and 2012 PhD graduates of Stanford, respectively).

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration building

Research shows that polling has somewhat overstated Americans’ economic fears about immigration. (Associated Press photo by Matt York)

The researchers reached this conclusion after conducting a study focused on American attitudes toward the issuance of H-1B visas, which are largely granted to Indians working in the high-tech sector. Researchers targeted 75 U.S. counties with a high percentage of workers in the IT sector. During a 3-week period in 2009, 1,134 people in those counties were surveyed online. Questions included whether people thought the United States should increase, decrease, or keep about the same number of H-1B visas. And: “Looking forward to the next three years, how confident do you feel about being able to keep your current job?” Respondents were coded based on whether they worked in the high-technology sector.

Results showed that American high-tech workers who felt their own jobs threatened were far more likely to oppose granting more H-1B visas than white-collar workers outside the sector. Whereas more than three-quarters of high-tech workers concerned about their jobs supported decreasing the number of H-1B visas, less than half of white-collar workers outside the sector supported a decrease. In other words, those who opposed issuing more visas to highly skilled workers from abroad turned out to be only a subset of the overall American population.

For Silicon Valley, the study has clear implications: Boosting the number of H-1B visas granted has been a high priority in the region. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and other entrepreneurs have been funding a lobbying effort to expand the number of such visas granted to computer engineers from abroad amid a shortage of qualified applicants at home. Research such as Malhotra’s could make Washington less skittish about awarding more visas given the narrow group of workers opposed to them.

The study’s implications for the broader question of amnesty for millions of undocumented workers is not yet clear. Malhotra said more research needs to be done to determine the true reasons behind opposition to amnesty. Margalit, Malhotra’s co-researcher, is currently conducting a similar targeted study of 12 fields that employ a large number of foreigners — including construction and nursing — to see if there is a similar impact beyond the high-tech sector. But Malhotra said no study to date has done a good job really getting at the heart of why people feel the way they do.

“You can’t do these broad omnibus studies,” Malhotra said in an interview. “You have to do targeted research.” Understanding why Americans feel the way they do about immigration is important for smart policymaking. “The question is: What is actually driving people in their hearts?”

If American views on immigration are primarily tied to economic issues, Malhotra said, “there are policy interventions you can have.” If opposition is rooted in cultural biases or racism, that may be harder to address, he added.

The study, presented at a conference of the Midwest Political Science Association, is due to be published in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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