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Americans’ post-9/11 views on immigration are conflicted and nuanced, report finds

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Ten years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Americans feel conflicted about the role of immigrants in the United States, according to a report released this week.

While most Americans consider immigrants to be hardworking and to have strong family values, they are divided on whether or not the influx of newcomers from other countries strengthens the United States, according to the report, “What It Means to Be American: Attitudes in an Increasingly Diverse America Ten Years After 9/11,” by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution.

Opinions on this and other issues in the survey tended to fall along party lines, with Republicans casting immigration in a more negative light than Democrats and independents.

A majority of Republicans (55 percent) and Americans who associate themselves with the tea party movement (56 percent) say newcomers from other countries threaten traditional American customs and values, while a majority of Democrats (62 percent) and independents (56 percent) say newcomers strengthen American society, the report said.

Younger Americans also see immigrants in a more positive light than older Americans do.

“There really is a tug of war going on here with how Americans are understanding the effect of newcomers in this society,” said Robert Jones, chief executive of the Public Religion Research Institute and a co-author of the report. “What it says to us is that Americans are desperately looking for a solution” to the immigration conundrum.

Despite the polarization of the debate over immigration law in recent years, Americans’ views on it are complex, the report found. A majority (57 percent) supports the Dream Act, a proposal that would allow illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children to pursue a path to legal residency if they attend college or join the military.

Support for the act rises to 69 percent among millennials but drops to 48 percent among senior citizens. In addition, 56 percent of Americans favored allowing undocumented immigrants a path to earning legal status.

At the same time, a majority of Americans (51 percent) support making a serious effort to deport all illegal immigrants, a percentage that has risen by nine points in the past 18 months, the report said.

The phenomenon of a “conflicting majority” that supports both deportation and a path to legalization shows that respondents have a nuanced understanding of the issue, said William Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at Brookings and a co-author of the report.

For example, many more (62 percent) say they would support a path to legalization rather than deportation if borders could be secured.

“Introducing secure borders as a foundation shifted the critical thinking,” Galston said.

The debate is also influenced by the fact that Americans who oppose immigration are a smaller but more passionate group than those who support it, he said.

The survey, which also looked at Americans’ attitudes toward different religions, found Americans to be evenly divided over whether the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life, with 47 percent agreeing and 48 percent disagreeing. The views tended to fall along political party lines. Around two-thirds of Republicans, tea party members and Americans who most trust Fox News say Islam is at odds with American values; a majority of Democrats, independents and those who most trust CNN or public television disagree.

Another finding may be salient to next year’s presidential election, in which at least two Mormons are considering bids for the Republican nomination. While 34 percent of white evangelicals say they do not consider Mormons to be Christian, according to the report, “it appears that Mormons’ family life, work ethic, traditional values, and pronounced conservative leanings do more to shape evangelical attitudes toward them than does their theology.”

The main question facing Republican candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. in the election, Galston said, will be about “the reliability of their conservatism rather than the fact that they’re Mormons.”

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