Anti-immigrant sentiment is driven mainly by concerns about immigrants making Americans less safe — and rests on racial assumptions about immigrants from the Middle East being most dangerous — according to new polling results.
The conversation about immigration reform is often focused on the supposed economic burden of immigrants. That was cited as one of the primary reasons that struggling U.K. residents who voted to leave the European Union were wooed by the Leave campaign, which relied on xenophobic messages about refugees to sell Brexit as a win for the working class. It’s also one of the reasons that immigration reform failed in the U.S. in 2007.
But according to the poll commissioned by Vox in partnership with Morning Consult, a nonpartisan media and technology company, American voters are worried about immigrants mostly because they have racialized fears of crime and terrorism.
The poll, which looks at Americans’ views on immigrants from various countries, found that white Americans tend to have negative opinions about immigrants from non-European countries. They’re least positive about immigrants from the Middle East, and also hold negative views about immigrants from Latin America and Africa. At the same time, however, white Americans have a much more positive view of European immigrants and Asian immigrants.
Asked about why they’re concerned about immigration, 26 percent of survey respondents cited national security as a key reason. That didn’t change even among participants in difficult economic situations who might be expected to be more concerned about their job prospects. Parsing out working-class voters (defined by people without a college degree) and low-income participants (defined by people making under $50,000), both categories of participants were still more likely to say their top concern was immigrants hurting national security over immigrants weakening the economy.
The Vox poll reaches somewhat of a different conclusion than a recent Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) study, which found that rising terrorism concerns in the U.S. haven’t led more Americans to embrace a harsh approach to immigrants. The PRRI poll found that roughly six in ten people told PRRI they support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants — a rate that has remained about the same since 2013, when the Senate approved a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have included this policy.
Regardless of the polling, this kind of fearmongering about immigrants as national security concerns is clearly playing out in the political landscape. Anti-immigrant sentiments have sharply risen since Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump openly claimed that Mexican immigrants could bring crime and rape across the southern U.S. border. Trump has explicitly tied Muslim immigrants and Syrian refugees to terrorist attacks around the globe, whether it’s in Paris, France, San Bernardino, California, or Orlando, Florida. In a jarring similarity reflective of the white Americans sampled, Trump once called for letting in more European immigrants.
It’s not just Trump. Federal lawmakers often tie immigration to national security concerns to elevate anti-immigrant legislation in Congress.
For instance, a bill sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) — legislation that Senate Democrats shot down on Wednesday — would have blocked federal funding to so-called “sanctuary cities,” or places that generally have large immigrant populations where local law enforcement officials can choose not to turn over undocumented immigrants to federal immigration authorities for deportation proceedings. Toomey specifically justified his bill by citing terrorist attacks.
“Sanctuary cities such as Philadelphia refuse to cooperate with the federal government in locating suspected terrorists who are in their custody and are in the country illegally,” he said in a statement. “This refusal is simply inexcusable in light of the growing threat from violent Islamist extremism and recent terror attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando, Turkey, and elsewhere.”
Another bill blocked by Senate Democrats would have forced a five-year mandatory minimum for immigrants who illegally reenter the country. Any person who had been deported three or more times would get a ten-year minimum sentence. This bill, known as “Kate’s Law” and sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), was named after Kate Steinle, a U.S. citizen who was shot and killed one year ago by an undocumented immigrant who had been deported five times. Anti-immigrant politicians like Donald Trump and Cruz have used her death to justify campaigning on harsh immigration policies against the undocumented population.
Stereotypes about immigrants from Middle Eastern or Latin American countries being more dangerous aren’t rooted in reality. Immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than members of the general U.S. population. And refugees resettled in the United States do not have a history of plotting terrorist acts; in fact, they go through a rigorous security screening — a much more stringent vetting process than many of the people who work in politics.
Although there may be some violent criminal immigrants who enter the country to do harm, a 2013 Human Rights Watch study found that people illegally entered or reentered the country mostly to seek work, to reunite with family members, or to flee violence or sometimes persecution abroad.