America’s Hidden Common Ground on Immigration

August 12, 2020

This report explores the views and values of the American public on immigration, including how much change people think the immigration system needs, their goals and priorities for changing it, and their views on various proposals for doing so. Drawing on a Public Agenda/USA TODAY/Ipsos national survey of American adults and four focus groups, the report’s main findings include:

  1. Americans across the political spectrum agree on several aspects of immigration policy, including creating a path to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children; quickly and fairly processing people who enter the U.S. illegally; enforcing border security; and welcoming immigrants who are skilled, financially secure or escaping war. While Americans differ on whether to create a path to citizenship for people who came illegally as adults, they share a discomfort with allowing undocumented immigrants who fail to pay taxes or commit crimes to stay in the U.S.
  2. Democrats and Independents consistently favor more welcoming immigration policies, while Republicans and apolitical people tend to express mixed or ambivalent views. For example, Democrats and Independents strongly support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants while Republicans and apolitical people express different views on a path to citizenship depending on how they are asked. Republicans and apolitical people also express mixed opinions on whether to welcome low-wage workers as legal immigrants. Most Americans think immigrants play positive roles in our nation, but those views are strongest among Democrats and Independents while Republicans and apolitical people are often unsure.
  3. Disagreement along the political spectrum is pronounced regarding building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, separating families at the border, and how to handle immigration during the coronavirus crisis. Few Americans think the wall will effectively stop people from entering the country illegally, but most Republicans say it is an important symbol, nonetheless.
  4. Many Americans are misinformed or unsure about key aspects of immigration. For example, few people know that most immigrants live in the U.S. legally or that many undocumented immigrants pay taxes. Americans who are more accurately informed tend to express more positive views of immigrants and favor more welcoming immigration policies.

Overall, this research finds areas of cross-partisan agreement on several aspects of immigration that could point the way towards workable policy solutions. While the research finds genuine cross-partisan disagreement on some aspects of this issue, the extent of ambivalence or mixed opinions is striking — particularly among Republicans and apolitical people. Also striking is the prevalence of misperceptions about immigration, which tend to correspond with more restrictive views on immigration policy among respondents. It is our hope that this report, along with the other Hidden Common Ground activities that accompany it, can help to focus, frame, and stimulate an informed and productive conversation about improving our nation’s immigration system.

Public Agenda’s Hidden Common Ground® initiative challenges the narrative that Americans are hopelessly divided and incapable of working together. Through research, journalism, and public engagement, Hidden Common Ground helps Americans identify and strengthen their common ground, productively navigate their differences, and create fair and effective solutions to the challenges of our time.

Hidden Common Ground explores issues including overcoming divisiveness, responses to the coronavirus, health care, economic opportunity, racism and police reform, and immigration.

The Kettering Foundation is a research partner of the Hidden Common Ground initiative. Hidden Common Ground is supported by a diverse group of foundations including Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Civic Health Project and through the generosity of individual donors.

This report summarizes findings from a nationally representative survey of 1,054 adult Americans 18 years and older. The survey was fielded May 15-24, 2020 by Ipsos using the probability-based web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. Respondents completed the survey in English or Spanish. The survey was weighted to match Census figures to ensure full representation of the American people.

The research also draws from four demographically diverse focus groups that Public Agenda conducted in February and March 2020 in Miami, Florida; Columbus, Ohio; New York, New York; and Jackson, Mississippi. The focus groups were conducted before the coronavirus pandemic began. For a complete survey methodology, the topline with full question wording and cross tabulations by political affiliation, please go to https://www.publicagenda.org/reports/where-americans-stand-on-immigration-a-hidden-common-ground-report/ or email research@publicagenda.org.