Findings: The Headlines


We commissioned opinion research in two regions of the country where immigration is viewed as a major issue: California and the Southern states of South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama. California’s relationship with Mexico is ancient and many generations of Latinos have called California their home. New immigrants have a relatively easy time integrating themselves into the social, economic, and cultural life of the state. However, the South is a different story. New immigrants have been settling there only relatively recently. Fear of the new, combined with the general conservatism of even the more progressive segments of the population, has created barriers to integration and voter support for repressive legislation. Major findings from the research projects include:

Southern States Focus Group

  1. Participants from every group, including African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and persuadable whites, believed that undocumented immigrants, whom they equated with Latinos, were a direct threat to their economic stability. Economic concerns drove their negative attitudes about immigrants. Advocates should not take for granted traditional progressive audiences in this part of the country.
  2. Participants across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds expressed strong opposition to “illegal” immigration.
  3. Most participants did not believe that comprehensive reform was necessary. Rather, they tended to support the stricter enforcement of current laws and supported states’ rights arguments for implementing stricter measures, if necessary. Most participants opposed a path to citizenship because they viewed it as rewarding “criminal behavior” and as unfair to those who have done it “the  right way.”
  4. Participants believed that state and local law enforcement should provide federal lawmakers with the benefit of their knowledge and help them enforce whatever statutes are enacted under the federal umbrella. They saw this as a balanced solution.
  5. When faced with facts that they were not aware of and did not expect to be true, participants expressed discomfort with some enforcement realities and said they wanted the system to be fair. They objected to the separation of families during the immigration enforcement process, and to racial profiling. They opposed policies that would allow imprisonment and deportation without a hearing.
  6. When researchers exposed participants to a series of facts, they were most surprised by the time and resources a deportation operation would cost. Even the staunchest supporters of deportation reconsidered their support for deportation policies when they learned that it would take 34 years and cost $285 billion to deport everyone who is currently here without documentation.
  7. The messages that appealed most to these participants defined the debate in terms of fundamental fairness, maintaining America’s core identity, and reflecting America’s values. For instance, participants were troubled by the possibility that some policies caused due process violations, and in these cases, the danger to the values most people hold about the importance of due process was more compelling than protecting the rights of particular people.

California Focus Groups and Survey

  1. Focus group participants across gender, racial, and ethnic spectrums worried that immigration created competition for scarce jobs. They also believed undocumented immigrants benefited from advantages in American society but did not contribute via taxes and that they reaped benefits they did not sow.
  2. Californians believed the system was broken. They were solution-oriented, and in the absence of any other solution, they defaulted to tougher enforcement policies. But given the solution of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), including a path to citizenship, they overwhelmingly agreed with that approach and rejected an enforcement-only policy.
  3. When researchers introduced CIR as a potential solution to many immigration issues, voters embraced this idea, and their support for a more aggressive enforcement system decreased.
  4. Facts and statistics about immigration helped bring clarity to the discussion. When confronted with data that challenged core beliefs, however, voters did not reject their core belief; instead, they rejected the data. Advocates should not anchor their messages in facts.
  5. Balance and fairness were the key values that voters wanted to see reflected in immigration policies.
  6. The strongest critiques of the Secure Communities program were that it lacked transparency, enforcement was inconsistent and unfair, it didn’t give local government a voice, it did not apprehend criminals, and it did not make communities safer.
  7. Messages should sound hopeful and be solution-oriented, acknowledge this is a serious and important issue, emphasize that immigrants want to integrate and contribute, and invoke the values of balance and fairness.