FIGURING FAITH | The revelation that the two leading suspects in Boston bombing were Chechen Muslim immigrants to the U.S.—one a U.S. citizen since 2011 and one a lawful permanent legal resident—spurred a round of discussion about the link between the terrorist bombings in Boston and the recently introduced immigration reform bill, sparking especially heated debate among Republican leaders. On the one hand, Sen. Chuck Grassley and others have argued that since the bombings were allegedly perpetrated by immigrants who were living legally in the U.S., new legislation should be delayed until the failures of the current legislation could be fully understood. Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsay Graham and Sen. John McCain countered by urging lawmakers to move forward on the immigration reform bill, arguing that the legislation would strengthen national security. The Catholic bishops have similarly urged lawmakers to seize this opportunity to fix the immigration system.
Findings from PRRI/Brookings’ recent large national survey of immigration reform suggest that the general public falls closer to McCain and Graham on this complicated issue. Generally, the survey findings show that while there is a positive correlation between negative attitudes about Muslims and concerns about national security, these concerns do not translate into opposition to a path to citizenship for immigrants who are currently living illegally in the U.S.
The survey shows that Americans are strongly concerned about security issues in the context of immigration. More than eight-in-ten (84 percent) Americans say that “promoting national security” is a very or extremely important value that should guide the creation of any immigration reform policy.
While Americans exhibit, on balance, relatively positive views of immigrants, Americans hold more negative than positive attitudes about Muslims. When asked about how different groups of people are changing America, 27 percent of Americans say Muslims are changing American culture and way of life for the worse, compared to 18 percent who say Muslims are changing America for the better. A majority (54 percent) of Americans say Muslims are having no impact or mixed impact on American culture and way of life, or say they do not know. Of the nine groups measured in the survey, only nonreligious Americans and atheists had a higher negative to positive impact ratio than Muslims. Americans who say that Muslims are changing America for the worse also have strong security concerns: 94 percent say that promoting national security is a very or extremely important value for guiding immigration reform.
But notably, neither Americans who say promoting national security is a very or extremely important value nor Americans who believe Muslims are changing the country for the worse connect those beliefs strongly with opposition to immigration reform. Among Americans who say that promoting national security is very or extremely important, 67 percent support a path to citizenship. Similarly, among Americans who believe Muslims are changing the country for the worse, 57 percent nonetheless favor a path to citizenship for immigrants who are currently living in the U.S. illegally. Even among Americans who believe Muslims are changing the country for the worse AND who say promoting national security is very or extremely important, a majority (55 percent) favor a path to citizenship.
There are at least two reasons why the minority of Americans who hold negative views about Muslims nevertheless support immigration reform. First, like most Americans, three-quarters of this group sees the current immigration system as mostly broken. Second, this group also sees other values as important to immigration reform. Among Americans who say Muslims are changing the country for the worse, three-quarters (75 percent) say that the value of protecting the dignity of every person is very important, and nearly six-in-ten (58 percent) say that following the Golden Rule (“providing immigrants the same opportunity I would want if my family were immigrating to the U.S.”) is a very important value for guiding immigration reform policy.
Overall, the survey data suggests that for most Americans, and even for Americans who hold negative views of Muslims and strong security concerns, a combination of pragmatism and values lead them to the conclusion that the best way forward—even amidst these concerns—is to support a path to citizenship for immigrants currently living illegally in the U.S.