Living Side-by-Side: The Relationship Between Contact with Immigrants and Pro-Immigrant Sentiments

Introduction

America’s immigration policy has been a contentious and divisive issue in contemporary American politics. From debates over the detention of migrant children at the southern border, to the President’s recent proclamation requiring immigrants to prove their ability to afford health care before receiving visas, to the administration’s decision to bar travelers from seven Muslim countries, American immigration policy has moved in an increasingly exclusionary direction. Recent polling from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that Republicans are far more likely than Democrats to see immigration as a critical threat to the United States, indicating a deep partisan divide on immigration. These politically polarized attitudes on immigration began well before the Trump administration, with data from the American National Election Studies demonstrating that partisan differences in support for increased immigration have steadily grown from 2012 to 2018. These divisions raise the question: are contemporary attitudes towards immigrants merely a matter of partisan polarization? Or are there other factors actively influencing people’s policy views on immigration

An article by the New York Times invoked Ryan Enos, a Harvard political scientist, as saying that “nonimmigrants living close to, but not integrated with immigrants” results in a “backlash against immigration” within these nonimmigrant communities (Edsall, 2019). However, research in psychology suggests that interpersonal interactions between members of different social groups can reduce negative stereotypes about outgroups. This is done through subcategorization, where positive interactions between members of different social groups foster positive stereotypes about members of the outgroup, which are then generalized to the social group as a whole (Brewer, 1996; Gaertner, Dovido, Anastasio, Bachman, and Rust,1993). Enos’s findings, in conjunction with psychology research on subcategorization, suggests that independent of partisanship, the amount of contact one has with immigrants might impact one’s feelings towards immigrants, and in turn one’s opinions on immigration-related policy.

This post analyzes the relationship between contact with immigrants in daily life and perceptions of the impact of immigrants on the US economy and American culture, examining the relationship between contact and sentiments towards immigrants. The data finds a positive relationship between contact and positive perceptions regarding the impact of immigrants on American culture and the economy. Importantly, it shows that the frequency of contact one has with immigrants is far less important than whether or not one has contact at all. Whether one has any contact with immigrants in their daily lives is most predictive an individual’s attitudes towards immigrants.

Data

This analysis draws on an October 2019 iteration of the Grinnell College National Poll, conducted by Seltzer & Co. from October 17th – October 23rd of 2019. The poll asked questions concerning respondent’s demographics, political attitudes, and policy preferences, including questions regarding the perceived impact of immigrants on American culture and the economy, the frequency with which respondents interacted with immigrants in their daily life, and their opinions regarding Trump’s immigration policy. The survey relied on a telephone-based sampling of 1,003 U.S. adults 18 or older, including 806 likely voters in the 2020 general election. Poll results were weighted by sex, age, and race to make survey results reflective of the known demographics of the U.S. as a whole.

Analysis

I began by examining the relationship between subject’s responses to the question: “When it comes to the impact immigrants have on American culture, do you think immigrants mostly enrich American culture or are mostly a threat to American culture?” and the question: “About how often do you interact with immigrants in your daily life—every day, most days, several times a month, less than once a month, or possibly never?”

I first conducted a linear regression analysis searching for a relationship between the perception of a threat to American culture and frequency of contact with immigrants while controlling for the potentially explanatory demographic variables of party identification, ideology, education level, age, race, gender, ideology, religious identification, frequency of attendance at religious services (religiosity), and rural-urban geographic location. Regression analysis allows one to assess the direct relationship between two variables, while controlling for other variables that might influence the relationship. Contact with immigrants is my key independent variable, and other demographic variables are controls inserted in the model.

Figure 1 illustrates the results of this regression. In it, a statistically significant relationship exists when the 95% confidence interval for the key independent variable (indicated by the horizontal blue line) does not cross the red vertical “0” line. When confidence intervals cross the zero line, it means that one does not know if the relationship is positive, negative, or neutral. Thus, the important takeaway from Figure 1 is that the 95% confidence interval for my independent variable—contact with immigrants—does not cross the zero line, even when controlling for a myriad of demographic variables. This 95% interval means that if the survey was repeated using identical questions and methodology, 19 of 20 times the actual relationship between contact with immigrants and perceived impact of immigrants on American culture (aka the true population value) would be in the specified range. Figure 1 demonstrates that although party identification, education, ideology, and age influenced the relationship between frequency of contact and perceived impact on American culture, the relationship between contact and perceived impact on American culture remains statistically significant even when these control variables are included in the regression model.

Figure 1

I next examined the relationship between frequency of contact and perceived impact of immigrants on the American economy in more detail. Figure 2 shows that those who “possibly never” interact with immigrants in their daily lives report significantly fewer positive feelings about the impacts of immigrants on American culture. Those who reply that they interact with immigrants “possibly never” their daily lives indicate that immigrants “mostly enrich American culture” 61% of the time, whereas those who interact every day “every day” reply that immigrants “mostly enrich American culture” 92% of the time.

Additionally, I find that the existence of contact with immigrants in daily life, rather than its frequency, is the important factor in the relationship between contact and feelings about the impact of immigrants on American culture. As seen in Figure 2, there is no significant difference in perceptions of immigrant impact on culture between those that interacted with immigrants every day or less frequently in their daily lives. Whether contact is every day or less than once a month is not nearly as decisive compared to whether there is no contact at all. Thus, the analysis only partially supports my hypothesis. We see that having some contact with immigrants in daily life is correlated with more positive feelings towards the impact of immigrants on American culture, but the frequency of contact does not seem to matter.

Figure 2

I next consider the questions of frequency of contact with immigrants and subject’s response to the question: “When it comes to the impact immigrants have on the American economy, do you think immigrants have a mostly positive effect or a mostly negative effect on the American economy?” Similar to the question regarding culture, I began with a linear regression to examine the relationship between frequency of contact and perceived impact of immigrants on the American economy when controlling for demographic variables. As seen in Figure 3, once again, although party identification, education, and ideology impact the relationship between contact and the perceived impact of immigrants on the American economy, there is still a significant relationship between contact and perceptions of immigrant’s impact on the American economy when controlling for demographic variables as indicated by the fact that its confidence interval does not cross the red “0” line.

Figure 3

Looking deeper, Figure 4 examines how the frequency of contact matters in perceptions of immigrant impact on the American economy. Notably, those who reply that they “possibly never” interact with immigrants are less likely to indicate a belief that immigrants have a “mostly positive” effect on the American economy. In specific, those who replied “possibly never” indicate a “mostly positive” effect 47% of the time, whereas those who interact “every day indicate a “mostly positive” effect 85% of the time. This suggests that contact with immigrants is related to perceptions of the impact of immigrants on the US economy.

However, there is no statistically significant difference between perceptions of economic impact when contact occurs every day, most days, and several times a month, suggesting that the existence of contact with immigrants matters more than the frequency of this contact, at least with respect to sentiments regarding immigrants and the US economy. Therefore, my findings only partially support my hypothesis that increased frequency of contact with immigrants is correlated with a more positive view on the impact of immigrants on the American economy.

Figure 4

Discussion

My findings show that, although contact with immigrants does impact one’s perception of the impact of immigrants on American culture and the economy, the frequency of contact is less important than the existence of contact. Furthermore, contact with immigrants has a measurable relationship with positive feelings regarding the impact of immigrants on American culture and the US economy independent of partisanship. As such, although we cannot assume a causal link between contact with immigrants and sentiments towards immigrants, this finding supports the conclusions of existing psychology research regarding the impact of contact on building positive associations between social groups. It further suggests that a partial remedy for growing anti-immigrant sentiments might be facilitating contact with immigrants.

Conclusion

There is a relationship between contact and perceived impact of immigrants on American culture and the economy. Furthermore, my analysis suggests that it is not the frequency of contact, but rather whether one has any contact with immigrants in their daily lives, that is most telling in predicting an individual’s attitudes towards immigrants.

References

Brewer, M. B. (1996). When contact is not enough: Social identity and intergroup cooperation. Prejudice, Discrimination and Conflict, 20(3), 291–303. https://doi.org/10.1016/0147-1767(96)00020-X

Donald Trump. (2019, October 4). Presidential Proclamation on the Suspension of Entry of Immigrants Who Will Financially Burden the United States Healthcare System. Retrieved November 26, 2019, from The White House website: https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/presidential-proclamation-suspension-entry-immigrants-will-financially-burden-united-states-healthcare-system/

Gaertner, S. L., Dovidio, J. F., Anastasio, P. A., Bachman, B. A., & Rust, M. C. (1993). The Common Ingroup Identity Model: Recategorization and the Reduction of Intergroup Bias. European Review of Social Psychology, 4(1), 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1080/14792779343000004

Edsall, T. B. (2019, December 11). Trump Has a Gift for Tearing Us Apart. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/11/opinion/trump-immigration.html

Kafura, C. (2019, September 13). Republicans and Democrats in Different Worlds on Immigration. Retrieved November 19, 2019, from Chicago Council on Global Affairs website: https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/publication/republicans-and-democrats-different-worlds-immigration

Rick Gladstone, & Satoshi Sugiyama. (2018, July 1). Trump’s Travel Ban: How It Works and Who Is Affected—The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/01/world/americas/travel-ban-trump-how-it-works.html

Villegas, P. (2019, October 29). Detentions of Child Migrants at the U.S. Border Surges to Record Levels. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/29/world/americas/unaccompanied-minors-border-crossing.html

Abby Hanson ’21 is a political science major at Grinnell College. 

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