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Surprise! Americans actually agree on immigration

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Poli-Sci Perspective -- and yes, we're open to better names -- is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University's Dan Hopkins and George Washington University's Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Hopkins looks at the surprising consensus on immigration.

In the wake of the presidential election, both Democrats and Republicans appear to agree: If Republicans are to remain competitive as a national party, they need to moderate on immigration reform in order to appeal to Hispanic voters. President Obama, sensing an opportunity, has pledged to move forward with a proposal quickly.

Agreements that something should be done often fall apart when the question turns to "what should be done?" But on this issue, there’s actually a surprising amount of consensus across the country.

Ongoing research that MIT's Jens Hainmueller and I have conducted shows that among voters, there is a striking level of agreement about which immigrants to admit to the U.S.  In a nationally representative survey conducted in December of 2011 and January of 2012, we asked respondents to look at pairs of hypothetical immigrants to the U.S. and then indicate which of the two they wanted to see admitted.

The design of the survey forced everyone to make a choice. For each pairing, we randomly varied nine attributes of the immigrant profiles, so that a respondent might find herself choosing between a Mexican gardener with a high school education and a Chinese child care provider with two years of college.

One might have expected that immigrants' countries of origin would play a sizable role in Americans' preferences. But that's not what we found. If they have other pieces of information about an immigrant, Americans don't rely much on an immigrant's birthplace. Instead, they put substantial weight on the immigrant's education and profession.

In the figure below, we illustrate the effect of each attribute, with dots indicating the impact of a given attribute on the probability that the hypothetical immigrant is preferred and the line showing our uncertainty. The dots without horizontal lines? Those are the baseline attributes.

To be sure, there are some differences by birthplace.  As compared to the baseline immigrant (who happens to come from India), Somali and Iraqi immigrants are at a disadvantage.  However, immigrants from Mexico—the single largest group of immigrants in the contemporary U.S.--are not penalized relative to any other countries.  That said, an immigrant who has previously entered the U.S. without authorization does face a penalty.

And contrary to the perception that the American public is politically divided about which immigrants to admit, Democrats and Republicans exhibit strikingly similar preferences, as the following chart shows.

The core conclusion is that we are looking at two variants of the same image.  Democrats and Republicans alike prefer high-skilled immigrants with high-status professions. Neither group is as supportive of immigrants who can't speak English, have no plans to look for work, or those who have made a previous, unauthorized trip to the country.

In the corresponding paper, we show that it's not just Democrats and Republicans who agree: it's liberals and conservatives, those with and without higher education, the wealthy and the poor, those who report biases against other racial or ethnic groups and those who do not.

When it comes to the question of the types of immigrants to be admitted, there is a hidden American immigration consensus, one that crosses party lines.  From these results, it seems clear that Americans would be likely to support a more skill-based immigration system, such as the one employed at the federal level in Canada.