President Obama’s inability to achieve comprehensive immigration reform stands as one of his major legislative defeats during his first term in office. Today, the issue continues to hound the president, with immigration activists growing increasingly vocal about the administration’s seemingly harsh deportation record and a Republican-controlled House of Representatives unwilling to wade into a divisive debate during an election year. Yet, the way in which the president and Congress approach immigration reform depends in large part upon how the issue is viewed by the American public. Recent polling data by the Pew Research Center suggest that while nearly everyone agrees that a major overhaul of the current system is necessary, voters remain deeply divided about levels of immigration into the United States, as well as the specific treatment of undocumented immigrants. In this battlefield over immigration reform, public opinion scholars have almost exclusively focused on understanding public opposition to immigration and the causes of aversion toward specific immigrant groups. However, anti-immigration sentiments are only half of the story. Left largely unexplored are the attitudes among pro-immigrant groups who advocate for immigrant rights and more permissive government policies. Relative to the opponents of immigration, much less is known about what motivates these immigration advocates. So, what causes people to support immigration?
To begin, there are a number of usual suspects that are associated with opposition to immigration, including prejudice, perceived cultural and economic threats, and ideological conservatism. Yet, identifying the relative absence of factors known to boost opposition to immigration is not necessarily the same as determining which factors yield support for immigrants. Anecdotal evidence suggests that immigration is an issue that can tug at the heartstrings: Many immigrants come from disadvantaged circumstances, in which they are fleeing poverty, lack of opportunity, or harsh political oppression. Indeed, many of the most prominent pro-immigrant organizations mount public relations campaigns that explicitly appeal to the heart and call upon American citizens to consider immigrants not merely as Latinos, Africans, or Asians, but as fellow human beings with basic needs and rights that are being neglected in their home countries. Thus, the core message of proponents of immigration is one of humanitarianism.
In a recent study we analyzed the importance of humanitarian values, defined as a concern for the well-being of others, to test its impact on immigration attitudes. One of the reasons this is an important concept is that research demonstrates that humanitarianism predicts support for policies that incorporate concern for the well-being of others, such as for government programs to support the disadvantaged, needy, infirm, or elderly. Using nationally representative survey data collected in 1996 and 2005, as well as our own survey data collected in 2012, we find that humanitarianism consistently predicts support for permissive immigration policies, and more importantly, this finding holds for American citizens across Democratic and Republican party lines. In our 2012 data, we also show that humanitarians are more likely to support specific government benefits for immigrants, as well as to grant the children of undocumented immigrants access to publicly funded schools.
Humanitarian values clearly seem to play an important role in support for immigration, but we also know that political attitudes are not formed in a vacuum. Instead, they are the result of what people hear and see on a daily basis – that is, the information environment to which people are exposed. In line with this thinking, we examined how different media messages, which were specifically designed to mimic the dominant arguments from pro- and anti-immigration groups, affect immigration attitudes. Utilizing a survey-embedded experiment, we discovered that if the media were to highlight the plight of prospective immigrants, rather than focusing on potential threats they pose, then the ‘heavy hand’ typically dealt immigrants by the public could be eased in favor of support for more permissive policies. Most interestingly, our research suggests that humanitarian appeals have the potential to generate support for immigration, even in the presence of countervailing threats. Lastly, our research highlights the relevance of empathy as a trait of central importance in shaping public reactions to immigration debates, as we discovered it enhances the effect of humanitarian information and undermines the effect of typical threat-based appeals. Thus, when it comes to arousing more tolerance and support for immigration, we find that those who are best able to mentally and emotionally “put themselves in the shoes of another” are most likely to respond to humanitarian calls on behalf of immigrants.
In sum, humanitarian concern seems to play a vital role in fostering support for immigrants and immigration policy, more generally. We also learned that humanitarianism is not simply a static individual difference in the electorate; rather, humanitarian concern can be cultivated with narratives that explore the reasons that immigrants leave their home countries in search of the “American Dream.” President Obama recently vowed to enforce immigration laws “more humanely,” but it remains unclear whether xenophobia or the concern for other human beings will ultimately prevail in the nation’s future immigration policies and border enforcement practices.