Decoding America’s Immigration Sentiment

As published in The Huffington Post, March 13, 2017

Last Monday the White House issued its ‘revised’ refugee ban engineered to pass constitutional muster. This affords yet another flashpoint in the young life of this administration, where pundits and opportunists will draw battle lines between ‘allies’ and ‘opponents’ with all constituents divided into tribes. However, this approach is a mischaracterization of America.

A cardinal rule of measuring public opinion is that ‘context is king.’ Binary characterizations of public opinion are not only specious, but can often be dangerous in a world where polling numbers can influence national policies and laws. Contrary to the pronouncements of talking heads, most people can not be drawn neatly into boxes of ‘racist’, ‘radical’, or ‘realist’. Like with most issues, on immigration and refugees, most Americans’ attitudes are complicated.

A few weeks ago, the Reuters/Ipsos poll caught a news cycle with the first poll after the first refugee ban (link). The most widely circulated finding was that a plurality of Americans (48%) supported the ban while an almost equivalent number (41%) opposed it. At the time this was a source of consternation to the left, and joy to the right that ‘more Americans’ supported the ban than not. And at the time, we pointed the study really showed that public opinion is not so simple. For instance, while 66% agree that the United States should limit the number of refugees that it takes in, 57% disagree that there should be a religious test for deciding what refugees to accept. This more nuanced position is at odds with the administration’s more overt ban on Muslim refugees.

Since the first ban was released and taken down, we have kept those questions in the field on the Reuters/Ipsos poll. Overall public opinion towards the ban has not changed, staying at 48% support after two weeks. Likewise, the number agreeing that the U.S. should open its borders to refugees of foreign conflicts is unchanged at 51%, up only three percentage points.

However, we did add one additional question that shines a little lighter on the preferences of Americans. When asked if the U.S. should take in refugees who have passed a series of background checks, interviews, and biometric screenings, a very large majority of 82% agreed that we should.

To be clear, this was the status quo law of the land before any executive action taken by the President. These screening steps are all parts of the Obama-era refugee screening process. This would indicate that a large majority of Americans are supportive of the refugee resettlement program. (Link)

So how do we square the circle of these seemingly contradictory positions? How can a majority of Americans support admitting refugees who pass checks and a plurality of Americans support a ban that ends the admittance of refugees at the same time?

First, Americans’ priorities shift when the framing and context of issues shift. Most notably, most Americans prioritize safety over civil liberties in times where the risk of attack seems high. Second, Americans’ knowledge of detailed policy tends to be shallow. Most people have minimal familiarity with the preexisting refugee screening criteria.

Nuance matters to understanding public opinion. Broad characterizations are easy, but people’s opinions are complicated. Relying on any single question or measure to summarize Americans risks oversimplifying their true beliefs and rendering public debate a caricature of positions and not those that are really felt.