Are legal immigrants opposed to undocumented immigration? Recently, a group of first-generation Chinese Americans has made national news by showing up at hearings and objecting vociferously to sanctuary city policies, which aim to protect people who are in the United States without documents. News articles covering this group suggest that there may be a broader conflict between legal and undocumented immigrants over liberal immigration laws.
But those stories are simply anecdotes. New data from the 2016 National Asian American Post-Election Survey (NAAS) suggest that most Asian Americans want to support those who are here without papers.
How the research was done
That conclusion comes from a nationally representative survey conducted from Nov. 10, 2016, through March 2 of more than 4,000 Asian Americans, most of whom are foreign-born and naturalized. The data were weighted to mirror the breakdown of Asian immigrants (66 percent), including naturalized citizens (60 percent of all Asian immigrants) in the U.S. population more generally, as explained in the survey’s methods section.
The survey does not ask about sanctuary jurisdictions. However, it does include questions on Asian Americans’ views about whether undocumented immigrants should be allowed an opportunity to eventually become U.S. citizens, and whether states should provide driver’s licenses to all residents, regardless of immigration status.
Here’s what we find. Fully 58 percent of Asian Americans say they support legislation that would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the United States. Similarly, 54 percent think states should allow undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses.
Depending on the nation of origin, Asian Americans have different points of view
However, as you can see in the figures below, among Asian Americans (including a sample designed to be as representative as possible of the Asian American population as a whole, both immigrants and U.S. born), opinions vary among groups arrived or descended from different nations. For example, more than 60 percent of Bangladeshi, Indian and Japanese Americans support a path to citizenship, while just 46 percent of Vietnamese and 44 percent of Chinese support such a policy. Even among the latter, a plurality of each group supports a path to citizenship.
Why these differences? Partisan leanings might be behind these findings. Indian and Japanese respondents — who are most supportive of a path to citizenship — are also more likely than other Asian American groups to support Democrats. By contrast, Vietnamese and Chinese Americans are less supportive of a path to citizenship — and less likely to support the Democrats than other Asian American groups. In fact, Vietnamese Americans report the highest levels of Republican partisanship.While a minority (17 percent) of Chinese Americans are Republican or lean Republican, Chinese are about as likely to be nonpartisan (41 percent) as to identify as Democrat or Democratic leaning (42 percent).
Another possible explanation for these variations is different experiences with racial discrimination. Vietnamese and Chinese are less likely than other Asian American groups to report experiencing discrimination when trying to buy a home or rent an apartment, in their encounters with the police, and in terms of being harassed or threatened by strangers in the United States. That may be related to feeling less support toward marginalized groups like undocumented immigrants more generally.
However, a majority of most and a plurality of all these Asian American groups support policies easing the lives of undocumented immigrants, whether that be a path to citizenship or distributing driver’s licenses without regard to immigration status.
Those born overseas are indeed more conservative on these policies, as reporters have suggested. For example, foreign-born Chinese are split evenly on a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. A slim majority of foreign-born Koreans oppose a path to citizenship, while only 41 percent support. However, among the entire sample of foreign-born Asian Americans, 53 percent support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants while only 36 percent are opposed.
Which Asian Americans take which positions? We analyzed the results to take income, education, and gender into account and found that the more conservative positions are held by Asian Americans who are foreign-born, older and Republican, while the more liberal positions are held by those who are U.S.-born, younger and Democratic. But even of those more conservative, the picture that emerges is not one of deep opposition to policies designed to support undocumented immigrants.
Perhaps these findings make sense. After all, 1 in 7 Asian American immigrants is undocumented, and Chinese, Indian and Korean immigrants are the fastest growing undocumented groups in the United States.
Editors’ note: This post has been updated to include the two figures.
Janelle Wong is professor of American studies and director of Asian American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and one of the principal investigators of the 2016 National Asian American Survey.