A Retrospective Look at Arizona’s Immigration Law

Arizona’s immigration law has received extensive coverage in the press since it was passed in late April.  It’s become the subject of controversy among those who attack the law as establishing police-state like rules, and those who defend it as a means of rooting out illegal immigrants.  Shortly following the April Tea Party rallies, various localized protests broke out from pro-amnesty activists across the country seeking to build strength for amnesty legislation.

To briefly review, the Arizona law includes a requirement that immigrants residing with the state carry with them at all times documents verifying their citizenship, and allowing law enforcement to detain those who cannot provide such documents.  The provision has received much controversy among those who – I think – rightly fear the creation of a two-tiered justice system for immigrants and citizens – one in which law enforcement is able to legally commit racial profiling against Hispanic Americans and other minorities.

The American public’s reactions to the Arizona law has been one of “broad approval,” as revealed in a recent survey from the Pew Research Center.  A quick review below provides some basic details:

* 59 percent generally support the Arizona law.

* 73 percent approve of the provision “requiring people to produce documents verifying legal status.”

* 67 percent support “allow[ing] police to detain anyone unable to verify their legal status.”

* 62 percent support “allowing police to question anyone they think may be in the country illegally.”

Support is strongest among a few demographic subgroups, including Republicans (over Democrats and Independents) and older respondents (compared to the young).  The age distinction in opinions of the law is truly large, with less than half of those under 30 approving of the law, while nearly three quarters of those 65 and older approve.

Public opinion of the “problem” of illegal immigration is also biased in a conservative direction, although not strongly so on every question asked.  A recent Quinnipiac University poll from late May finds that 85 percent of Americans say that the “problem” of illegal immigration is “very serious” or “somewhat serious.”  Sixty-six percent support pursuing “stricter enforcement” against illegal immigrants, compared to just 26 percent who support taking steps toward “integrating immigrants into American society.”  Support is far less strong, however, for introducing measures similar to the Arizona law in their own states.  Forty-eight percent of those surveyed by the Quinnipiac poll say they “want [their] state to pass a law similar to Arizona’s,” with 35 percent opposing such action, and 17 percent unsure.  In a similar split, 45 percent feel the Arizona law will lead to “discrimination against Hispanics,” while 40 percent feel that it “will not.”

One of the values of analyzing public opinion survey data is that it allows researchers to isolate specific demographic variables (such as an individual’s sex, race, income, party, etc.), in order to discover which factors are more likely to “cause” individuals to take a position one way or another on public policy issues.  My own statistical analysis of 2009 survey data from the Pew Research Center finds that support for conservative views of immigration are more heavily concentrated among a few demographic groups.  These findings are briefly summarized below:

* Analyzing 2009 Pew polling data, one sees that support for making illegal immigration a top priority for national legislators is present most strongly among the less educated, Evangelicals, and older Americans (these variables remain significant predictors of opinions of illegal immigration as a priority, after controlling for other demographic variables through statistical analysis).

* According to a June 2007 Pew poll, opposition to granting amnesty to unauthorized immigrants is most strong among Republicans, the less educated, and older Americans (again, after controlling for other demographic variables).

* According to one Pew poll from mid 2009, opposition to health care reform was strongly driven by worries that illegal immigrants would benefit from the reforms.  Less educated respondents, in addition to Evangelicals, and older Americans were consistently more likely to oppose health care reform on the grounds that illegal immigrants would benefit.

A close analysis of the Pew polling data reveals a strong generational divide among the public in opinions on illegal immigration.  American contemporary culture, in which younger individuals have come of age, appears far more tolerant of unauthorized workers.  Closer analysis reveals that only about half of those between 18-29 oppose health care reform for fear that illegal immigrants will benefit, compared to about 80 percent of those in the 45-64 and 65 and over age categories.  Illegal immigrants are more likely to be seen by the young as hard working, contributing significantly to the economy among the young, and as worthy of staying in the United States.

Evangelical socialization apparently has a major effect on opinions of immigration as well.  There appears to be something special about growing up Evangelical that encourages intolerance based upon racial factors, although this trend is likely not consistent for all subgroups within the Evangelical demographic (a forthcoming book I’m working on explores in greater statistical detail how white and wealthier Evangelicals are systematically more likely to hold conservative views, compared to poorer and non-white Evangelicals who hold more liberal views).

There’s nothing surprising about the fact that Republicans, long seen as the party of affluent whites, are more likely to oppose illegal immigrants.  But it is worth stopping for a moment to address the role of education in influencing views of immigration.  Nearly 90 percent of those with a high school education or less oppose health care reform under the assumption that illegal immigrants will benefit.  This is a significant difference compared to the well educated – those with an undergraduate or graduate degree – of whom about 60 percent oppose health care based upon concerns about illegal immigrants.  It appears to be the case that individuals who benefit from higher levels of education are more likely to learn about the positive functions that unauthorized immigrants perform in regards to contributing to the American tax base and helping sustain the economy and economic growth.

Progressives have often framed the American public as “to the left” of center on public policy issues.  I would agree with this characterization in the case for foreign policy and economic issues, but less for social, moral, and cultural issues.  In these areas, public opinion is often deeply conservative, although not on every (social/moral/cultural) issue across the board.  On the issue of immigration, the public appears to be deeply indoctrinated in support of racist conservative political rhetoric that attacks illegal immigrants as dangerous “others” who threaten U.S. culture and “take away jobs” from hard working American citizens.  These opinions will likely persist into the future in light of strong support for the Arizona law and other similar initiatives, unless progressive activists are successful in educating the public about the important services provided by illegal immigrants.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO is the editor of media-ocracy (www.media-ocracy.com), an online magazine devoted to the study of media, social discourse, and public opinion. He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and the forthcoming When Media Goes to War (2010).  He can be reached at: mediaocracy@gmail.com





Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.