April 15, 2016

Americans’ views of immigrants marked by widening partisan, generational divides

Wide partisan gap in views of immigrants' impact on U.S.Republicans and Democrats continue to disagree deeply over immigration policies, including how to deal with undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. and whether to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Underlying these differences is a substantial – and growing – partisan divide over whether immigrants generally are a strength or burden on the country.

For more than 20 years, Pew Research Center has been asking whether immigrants in the U.S. “strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents,” or whether they “are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.”

In that time period, opinions about immigrants have shifted dramatically. In our latest national political survey, released in March, 59% of the public say immigrants strengthen the country, while 33% describe them as a burden. In 1994, opinions were nearly the reverse: 63% said immigrants were a burden and 31% said they strengthened the country.

Between 1994 and 2005, Republicans’ and Democrats’ views of immigrants tracked one another closely. Beginning around 2006, however, they began to diverge. In October that year, the partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats grew to 15 percentage points. Since then, the share of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents saying that immigrants strengthen the country steadily increased, from 49% then to 78% now, while the share with this view among Republicans and Republican leaners has shown little change (34% then, 35% today).

Growing generational differences in opinion about immigrants as a strength to the U.S.Generational differences in attitudes about immigrants have been evident since the mid-1990s, but they too have grown wider.

As of March, 76% of Millennials say immigrants strengthen the country, up from 59% in early 2013. Among those in Generation X, there has been an 11-point increase in positive views of immigrants since then (60% now, 49% then).

Among both Baby Boomers and those in the Silent Generation, opinion about immigrants grew more positive between 2013 and 2014, but has become more negative since then. Today, 48% of Boomers and just 41% of Silents say immigrants strengthen the country.

Views of path to legal status, U.S.-Mexico border wall

Democrats' support for path to legal status for undocumented immigrants ticks upSince 2013, majorities of both Democrats and Republicans have said that undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay in this country legally. But partisan differences on this issue have increased as well.

Currently, 75% of the public says that undocumented immigrants now living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay legally if certain requirements are met, while 23% say they should not.

Since fall, Democrats have become somewhat more supportive of a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants, while Republicans have become slightly less supportive. Nearly nine-in-ten Democrats and Democratic leaners (88%) say there should be a way for undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who meet certain conditions to remain in the country legally, up from 82% in September. Currently, 59% of Republicans favor allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the country legally, compared with 65% in September.

Across generations, majorities favor providing a way for undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. legally if they meet certain conditions. But support is more widespread among Millennials (82% favor) than among Gen Xers (73%), Boomers (71%) or Silents (70%).

Most Republicans favor a border wall; Democrats overwhelmingly are opposedThe idea of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a centerpiece proposal of Donald Trump’s campaign, is favored by only about a third of the public (34%), while 62% are opposed.

The proposed border wall is deeply divisive along partisan lines. By nearly two-to-one (63% to 33%), Republicans and GOP leaners favor building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. By contrast, just 13% of Democrats favor building a border wall, while 84% are opposed.

There also are substantial generational and ethnic differences in views of a border wall. Just 20% of Millennials favor building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, which is far lower than the shares of Gen Xers (36%), Boomers (43%) and Silents (47%) who favor this proposal. Whites (43% favor) are more than twice as likely as blacks (13%) and Hispanics (16%) to favor building a border wall.

As with views of other policy proposals, support for a border wall varies widely among supporters of the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates. Fully 84% of Republican and Republican-leaning registered voters who support Trump for the GOP nomination favor building a border wall, compared with 64% of those who support Ted Cruz and just 45% of those who back John Kasich. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, large majorities of those who support either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders oppose construction of a wall on the Mexican border (83% and 91%, respectively).

For more on how candidates’ supporters view key issues in the campaign, see our report, “Campaign Exposes Fissures, Values and How Life Has Changed in the U.S.”

Topics: Immigration, Unauthorized Immigration, Immigration Attitudes, Political Attitudes and Values, Generations and Age

  1. Photo of Bradley Jones

    is a research associate focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous1 year ago

    They are a burden. America looks like a 3rd world country. The kids today are taught Liberal far left views ONLY starting from Pre-K-College. This explains the surge in votes for Bernie Sanders a Socialist. Kids are not being told the truth about America and our history. America history is taught we are the bad people, we cause the pain and suffering in the world because we are the bullies. Parents need to know what is going on. Kids are being indoctrinated. Americans are being replaced by illegals. This is a fact.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      No, youth gain access to reports from around the world through the Internet. They support liberal movements the same as your generation once did, because youth are inherently more optimistic, and just as your generation is, the youth of America are equally disappointed in leadership and the direction of the country. If the older generation wasn’t so conservative and youth so liberal, this moment in time would be the perfect opportunity for a political revolution with moderate policy.

  2. Anonymous1 year ago

    Your surveys of immigrant preferences clearly show that Democratic Party/Democrat agenda prospects are greatly enhanced by immigrant demographics, likely not a little factor in the results.

    The question you will never ask is whether we should have limits on immigration and the laws enforced necessary to make that possible or should we just allow just about anyone to come and stay regardless of the immigration laws they ignore? And those polled should be made aware of Pew’s own population projection estimates resulting from immigration, so that their opinions have some basis in reality.

  3. Anonymous1 year ago

    I have suspected for some time now that your polls/statistics on political issues are skewed. After reading this article, I’M SURE OF IT!!

  4. Don Rosenberg1 year ago

    Before I retired I used to tell people who worked for me don’t ever start a conversation about your opinions. Star with facts and fill in the wholes with your opinion. The last time the public’s opinion played a big part in a decision made by the government we ended up in a war in Iraq.

    The same can be said for illegal immigration. I am sure that hardly any people surveyed in your poll have studied this issue, read the reports and analyzed them to the extent that I have for the past 5 years almost every day.

    I have two children who fall into the millennials category. While they are extremely knowledgeable about the world I find that many, no most, well practically all of the friends have limited at best knowledge about the world. We’re talking here about kids (really young adults) who went to some of the finest universities in the country. But how could they. They got/get their news from Steven Colbert, The Daily Show and Facebook.

    I loved the Colbert Show and The Daily Show but as Jon Stewart frequently said, “We do comedy”. They were both great for for bringing attention to the issues but should never been relied on for the facts. I hate Facebook (and Mark Zuckerberg) which is the biggest collection of crap in one place the world has ever seen. It was bad enough when someone would validate their comment because they saw it on the internet but relying on “facts” because you saw it on Facebook.

    The bottom line here is that while the numbers might be accurate on how people feel about all immigration (and yes just saying immigrants invalidates the entire survey) I know from practical experience that when you discuss the issue with someone, provide the facts that are rarely available from most of the media people really start to question their beliefs.

    “Who contributes more to the American economy, Elan Musk or Jose Gonzalez?” I think that will get you a better answer than “% who say immigrants today strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents. Add in a few facts that Jose has five American kids that are costing the pubic about $125,000 each to educate and all of whom he collects welfare payments, food stamps, section 8 housing grants, school breakfasts and lunches and free health care but he does pay $2,000 a year in taxes and you might get a different response. Of course that is not the profile for every illegal alien who has taken up residence but it’s many or some part for most.

  5. Anonymous1 year ago

    Which immigrants? Those who have been granted entry by the government? Or illegal immigrants? I think clarification in the questions would have led to different answers.

  6. Anonymous1 year ago

    What if the question was referring to illegal immigrants?

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      That was exactly what I wondered. “Immigrants” includes those here legally, who pay taxes, who work for a living, and who are responsible and legal individuals.

      1. Anonymous1 year ago

        “Immigrant” is a coded word. Politicians use it for maximum impact. The average American cannot tell who is, and who is not, legal immigrant. A turban is a turban to many Americans. Indian or Iraqi is all the same. So the politics simmers against all immigrants. As not many Americans want to pick strawberries, or do so much of the hard work immigrants do, for which the nation should be grateful, the talk of immigrants taking jobs boils down to the legal immigrants.

        1. Anonymous1 year ago

          Along with other facts, most people are not aware of the fact that the vast majority of illegals did not walk across Mexico border, but actually came in legally, most by plane, and simply stayed when their visa expired.
          And it appears that the majority of the illegals are in fact not minorities, but whites.
          But you will never see these actual facts on FNS, CNN, or MSNBC

          1. Don Rosenberg1 year ago

            One of the biggest problems in this debate is that we really do not have the facts. We have a population of people who cam in the country illegally or overstayed their visa from a low of 10 million to a high of 30 million. Your comment that the majority did not enter by crossing the border could be correct but most “experts” (and I use the term very loosely) put that number at about 40%. Many Hispanics are considered “white” so what do those numbers really mean.

            The fact that anyone would be willing to offer this population a legal basis to stay here not knowing anything about their demographics is appalling. The last time we did this we were off by a factor of 300% and of course the number of children born to illegal alien parents was tiny. Between the both you could be talking about 40 million people not the 11 million most people think are here.