PRINCETON, NJ -- While illegal immigration typically dominates debates over immigration policy, the issue of legal immigration came to the forefront in the recent Virginia Republican primary when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was soundly defeated by Tea Party favorite Dave Brat. Brat highlighted Cantor's support for expanding visas for skilled immigrants in his blistering charge that Cantor is soft on immigration. Brat's case may have been a fairly easy one to make, as new Gallup polling finds fewer than one in four Americans favor increased immigration.
The small amount of Americans who favor increased immigration include just 14% of Republicans. In fact, more Americans think immigration should be decreased than increased, and by a nearly two-to-one margin, 41% vs. 22%. A third in the U.S. are satisfied with the level as it is.
Americans' views on immigration have varied a bit in the past 15 years, with the dominant view shifting between decreasing immigration and maintaining it at the current level. Some of these changes may reflect the ebb and flow of Americans' reactions to the 9/11 attacks in 2001 as well as rocketing unemployment in 2009, with both events triggering a temporary surge in anti-immigration sentiment.
However, the Gallup trend also chronicles a separate narrative: a steady increase in public support for increasing immigration, rising from 10% in 1999 to 21% in 2012 and 22% today.
The long-term rise in support for expanding immigration could reflect growing public sympathy for the argument made by some prominent business leaders that the current cap on the number of work visas granted to highly skilled foreign nationals each year -- the so called H-1B visa program -- needs to be raised. In 2013, Gallup found about three-quarters of Americans were in favor of expanding the number of short-term work visas for highly skilled workers as part of a comprehensive immigration reform package.
Support for increasing immigration has grown significantly more among Americans with college degrees -- those more likely to be tuned in to the discussion about the need for importing highly skilled workers -- than it has among those with less formal education.
Since 2000, support for increased immigration rose 13 percentage points -- from 17% to 30% -- among adults with a postgraduate education, and it rose 19 points among those who stopped at an undergraduate degree. It grew comparatively less among those with only some college education (eight points) as well as those with no more than a high school education (four points).
Despite Americans' resistance to increasing immigration, the great majority continue to view immigration in positive terms for the country, with 63% calling it a good thing. That is down from 2013's high of 72%, but still exceeding the sub-60% readings found during the recent recession and, before that, in the wake of 9/11.
This upbeat view of immigration is held by 72% of Democrats, 63% of independents, and 55% of Republicans.
Immigration is central to who Americans are as a people, and what the United States represents, and by and large Americans view immigration as positive for the country. But deciding how many new immigrants to welcome each year can be controversial, particularly when unemployment is high, and seeming competition for good jobs already fierce.
Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has taken a lead role in championing the cause of expanding H-1B visas on the grounds that hiring a highly skilled foreign national isn't a zero sum proposition -- simply erasing a job opportunity for an American citizen. Rather, he argues, it is needed to help the country's high-tech sector make critical advances that will strengthen the economy to everyone's benefit.
Zuckerberg's critics have their own counter-arguments about his financial motives with regard to the pay scale for U.S. vs. foreign workers. Nevertheless, it's not clear how much Americans are tuning in to this debate, and thus how much it is influencing their overall views about the general volume of immigrants that should be allowed into the U.S. each year. To the extent the H-1B visa debate has influenced public opinion, it has been at the margins, with support for increasing immigration rising from 10% to 22% over the past 15 years. But reducing immigration remains the far more popular choice -- potentially aiding political attacks on supporters of expanding the H-1B visa program, as former Majority Leader Eric Cantor might attest.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted June 5-8, 2014, on the Gallup Daily tracking survey, with a random sample of 1,027 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the most recent Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the most recent National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the most recent U.S. census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
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For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.