Gay Rights Can Unlock Immigration Reform

Is cosmopolitanism driving greater support for immigration?

As Bloomberg View wrote last week, American views on immigration have been changing very, very quickly.

In 1986, the last time Congress passed comprehensive immigration legislation, easing the way to citizenship for several million undocumented immigrants, the public was in no mood to host newcomers. A Gallup poll that year showed 49 percent of Americans supported a decrease in immigration, while only 7 percent supported an increase. Another 35 percent endorsed the "current level" of immigration.

The change in views has been astonishingly rapid. Since dipping to 8 percent in the fearful wake of Sept. 11, support for increased immigration has risen remarkably, hitting 23 percent in the most recent Gallup poll in July 2013. In the same poll, support for decreased immigration, which was 50 percent in the wake of the economic meltdown in 2009, hit a record low of 35 percent. An April 2013 polling report by Public Opinion Strategies, a top Republican polling firm, stated: "It is clear that Americans' attitudes have shifted to be much more positive over time when it comes to the perceived impact of immigration." In November 2006, the firm found 64 percent of Americans saying immigration "hurts more than helps," while only 36 percent said it "helps more than hurts." By March 2013, the views were upside down -- 48 percent said it "helps more," while 40 percent said it "hurts more."

What's going on?

I asked a few pollsters and immigration experts, via e-mail, whether a surge in cosmopolitanism -- for lack of a better word -- might be driving greater acceptance of immigrants. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 80 percent of Americans lived in an urban area in 2010, and 40 million residents are foreign-born. It's been a while since we were defined by "American Gothic." As economist Bryan Caplan points out, support for immigration reform is weakest in places where immigrants are fewest. In other words, exposure to immigrants -- and perhaps to diverse populations generally -- appears to be closely related to support for immigration.

"For me, it's pretty stunning that we had the Great Recession without a backlash against immigrants," Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said. Of course, Arizona, Alabama and Georgia all passed anti-immigrant legislation even as border crossings from Mexico declined. But given how recent the economic crisis was, and how mediocre the economy has been since, support for immigrants is surprisingly strong. Greenberg points out that more than one-third of New York City residents are foreign-born; roughly 40 percent of Californians are. The U.S., he said, has "passed some tipping point on scale, density and familiarity" with immigrants. "Also, note that the undocumented used to concentrate around the border states, but with stronger border enforcement, they are much less likely to return to Mexico and have dispersed to metro areas around the country."

"The average American lives somewhere where the immigrant population is large or growing, they have personal connections, and the average American knows that immigrants are not stealing jobs or siphoning social services, they are working hard and contributing to America," wrote Matt Barreto, a pollster for Latino Decisions. "The DREAM movement really gave a public face to this cause, showing hard-working, assimilated young American immigrants who want a chance to continue their educations and be able to contribute more fully to their home country."

Asked about the current historical anomaly of strong public support for immigrants, Marshall Fitz, an expert at the liberal Center for American Progress, wrote: "Americans are much more comfortable with diversity than ever before, that is also an historical anomaly. But I think the reason is the sweeping nature of the demographic shifts. They have diminished (somewhat) the fear of the 'other.' Relatedly, millennials are growing up in a far more diverse society than we did and they don't even have to react to a demographic shift -- it's what they know. And the influence of millennials on cultural norms is significant."

One of the changing norms, as Peter Beinart explains, is belief in American exceptionalism. Only 27 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Americans agree that "the U.S. stands above all other countries." Among Americans age 65 and over, 50 percent agree.

"Think of it as somewhat similar to support for same-sex marriage," Barreto wrote of growing support for immigration. "Among younger folks, let's say under 35, things like gay rights and immigrant rights are not controversial, because they have grown up knowing more people who are gay or who are immigrants. So as the immigrant population increases and becomes more visible -- AND -- the overall U.S. population ages, the people who are 18 and over voicing their opinions in surveys are becoming more tolerant of diversity issues as a whole."

Welcome to cosmopolitan, internationalist, increasingly gay- and immigrant-friendly 2014. Unless, of course, you happen to live and work on Capitol Hill.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.