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Americans Share Common Ground, Misperceptions About Immigration, Poll Finds

A truck driving along the side of a tall fence.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection
A Border Patrol truck drives along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Lee en español.

When it comes to immigration, Americans have a lot of misconceptions about immigrants.  That’s one of the findings from a new national survey released Thursday from Public Agenda, USA Today and Ipsos Hidden Common Ground.

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be anything Earth-shattering about this latest poll. A majority of Americans support stronger border security.  But they also want a path to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. That’s in line with another recent survey from NPR and Ipsos.

Still it’s the border wall that seems to spark the most disagreement.

President Trump has been pushing for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico border since he was a candidate. In this latest poll, 31% of all Americans say that the border wall is an important symbol, regardless of how many people it stops from crossing the border illegally.

Richard Anson believes that. He’s a registered Democrat living in San Diego, after spending 35 years in Colorado. He said the wall doesn’t have to be intimidating.

“In some cities around California, they paint things, ugly things and make them look prettier,” the survey participant said. “I would do that with our fence or our wall or whatever, so the symbolism isn’t quite so in your face aggressive.

Anson is in line with 71% of Americans and 56% of Democrats who say it’s important to prevent illegal immigration by enforcing border security more strongly.

“I don’t mean that the borders should be closed, no entry. But I do mean that we should be able to close our borders,” Anson said.

Registered Libertarian John Morschauser disagrees. He thinks there should be open borders all the way. He lives in Albuquerque, N.M.

“I don’t think there should be anything stopping people from coming and going,” he said.

“I think using taxpayers’ dollars to build a wall is the crime. That’s the illegal part of anything, I think. The fact that somebody wants to come into this country and work, to me, is a plus,” Morschasuer said.

Morschauser is in the same camp as about two-thirds of Democrats who say building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border goes against American values and traditions. Compare that to just 17% of Republicans.

He says the U.S. is a nation of immigrants, from the Founding Fathers to today.

“Unless you’re Native American, you’re an immigrant. Your descendants are immigrants,” he said.

America may be a nation of immigrants, but overall, Americans have a lot of misperceptions when it comes to immigrants today.

Researchers asked survey participants three questions on that subject.  45% of respondents answered all three of them wrong. Just 8% got them all right.

A graph showing Americans who are more accurately informed about immigration tend to favor more welcoming policies toward undocumented immigrants.
Credit Public Agenda/USA Today/Ipsos Hidden Common Ground Survey - Immigration

David Schleifer is the director of research for Public Agenda, the organization behind the survey. He says researchers took how people answered those questions and compared that to their stances on immigration.

“The more questions people answered correctly, so the better informed they were, the more welcoming immigration policies they favored, and the more positive views they had of immigrants themselves and of immigrants’ roles in our society and economy and culture,” Schleifer said.

For example, the people who answered more of those three questions correctly were more skeptical of building a border wall. They were also more likely to believe that the government should allow undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S.

A graph showing Americans who are better informed about immigration tend to be more skeptical of building a wall.
Credit Public Agenda/USA Today/Ipsos Hidden Common Ground Survey - Immigration

Schleifer says this gap in knowledge poses an opportunity for people to become more informed.  But there’s also a flip side.

“I do kind of think that that creates opportunity for maybe some political manipulation,” he said. “I think it kind of creates this sort of room for politicians to kind of push a policy agenda that members of the public don’t really understand.”

He says while it was once thought to be a major election year issue in 2020, immigration will now take a backseat to the pandemic response.

“While it’s not necessarily front and center, I don’t think it’s gone away, and now it’s really just a question of how the virus itself sort of plays out in relation to immigration,” Schleifer said.

Now, with campaigns in full swing, it’s a topic that’s likely to get some national attention heading to November.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Noah Glick is a former content director and host at KUNR Public Radio.
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