Mason Study Finds Virginia Residents Sharply Divided on Immigration

Posted: June 29, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

According to a survey by the Mason Project on Immigration in the Center for Social Science Research, Virginians are deeply divided on immigration policies. Many Virginians are reluctant to have the government provide additional services to undocumented immigrants. At the same time, racial, socio-economic and political factors draw severe lines in the public’s opinion on immigration.

The survey was conducted during a three-week period ending June 5, at a time of rising debate and media coverage of immigration policy. Researchers extensively probed sensitive issues such as government-sponsored day labor centers, Minutemen-like border patrol groups, crime, unemployment, quality of life and even terrorism.

“Given the difficulty that federal legislation has faced, we need to pay careful attention to perceptions at the state and local level,” says sociologist Steven Vallas, who designed the study and directs the center. “This survey provides a timely portrayal of how the immigration debate has taken shape in Virginia and speaks to how the nation at large is sharply divided on the issue.”

In the survey based on interviews with a random sample of 1,072 respondents drawn from around the state, African Americans emerged as the most cautious group, expressing fear that undocumented immigrants will undermine their positions within the economy and society. Nearly half of all African Americans in the survey, compared to only 29 percent of non-Hispanic whites, agreed strongly that undocumented immigration tends “to lower the wages and salaries of American workers.”

Political views were among the strongest determinants of respondents’ attitudes, with 75 percent of the most conservative respondents believing that undocumented immigrants take jobs away from American workers, compared to only 32 percent of those who consider themselves strongly liberal.

Responses were also sharply divided according to region. The survey showed that residents in Northern Virginia and Charlottesville hold relatively accommodating views of undocumented immigration, while Virginians living in regions that have faced greater economic hardship in recent years, such as the south-central and Piedmont regions, tend to be more negative in their views.

Other findings were

  • In general, people with less education and lower household income tend to hold more negative views of illegal immigration.
  • People living in areas that have higher rates of unemployment or poverty also view illegal immigration more negatively.
  • Most Virginians favor some kind of legal status for the undocumented: 40 percent of respondents favored granting illegal immigrants permanent residency, while another 38 percent favored guest worker status. Only one in five Virginians rejected any path toward legal status.
  • A majority — 73 percent — of Virginians think police should check immigration status during routine activities such as traffic violation stops.
  • The most conservative respondents in the study were three times more likely to agree strongly that undocumented immigration will “increase the danger of terrorism” (61 percent) than were the most liberal respondents (19 percent).

“These findings indicate that divisions and debates about immigration are by no means limited to the halls of Congress and legislative bodies,” says Vallas. “Communities and social groups hold sharply different positions in relation to immigration, generating a divisive pattern that is not likely to wane anytime soon. Even if federal immigration reforms move through Congress, the fault lines that cut across local counties and municipalities are likely to make themselves felt.”

More information about the survey’s findings, detailed charts and graphs and the methodology of the survey can be found at the center’s web site.

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