What Immigration Issues Do Americans Hold Sacred?

A Psychological Journey Into American Attitudes Toward Immigrants

By: 
Nichole Argo, PhD and Kate Jassin, PhD
February 18, 2021

Understanding how deeply we hold our immigration stances may matter as much as what our stances are.

When it comes to immigration research in the United States, mainstream media coverage and policy analysis have traditionally focused on more top-line public opinion and what is revealed through polling. Average public polling is useful as a means of identifying which Americans are pro- or anti-immigration. It can explain what people feel or want, but it is unable to explain why they feel that way or how deeply they hold that position. It has also therefore been unable to suggest meaningful strategies for intervention or change.

This report and the interdisciplinary survey on which it is based sought to overcome these limitations by digging deeper into how respondents think about immigration issues. Our goal was to assess U.S. citizens’ mental models of immigration, i.e., their beliefs and attitudes towards it, but also their perceptions of the risks and benefits it poses. Broadly, we asked: In what ways do their beliefs and values interact with their perceptions of immigration? How and why do U.S. citizens hold the immigration attitudes that they do? 

Our attitudes about immigrants are wrapped up not only with our personal characteristics, life experiences, and beliefs about a wide range of other issues, they are also integrally shaped by our social identities. For instance, we are galvanized when a social group that we feel a part of is under threat. Amidst today’s toxic polarization, for example, both liberals and conservatives feel threatened by the other. We are also influenced by the emotions and stances our social groups have or take towards an issue (group norms). People often think and act in accordance with perceived group norms rather than rely on their own individual attitudes or beliefs. Lastly, both threat and the influence that group norms have on us feel even more powerful when our group affiliations overlap (e.g., say one is white, evangelical, and conservative, and that each of those groups shares the same life situations, threat perceptions and policy stances).

Research shows that when perceived threat and social identity become involved, our policy stances can become sacralized, transforming into absolutist, moralized, non-negotiable values. These sacred values do not operate like regular values, which can be reevaluated if one is willing to make trade-offs. Instead, sacred values are processed implicitly in the brain, outside of our conscious awareness or control.

Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s). 

Group norms are the informal rules that govern behavior in a group. They set expectations of how to behave, whether in terms of eating a meal or interacting with outsiders.

For example, imagine someone offered you $5,000 to sell your child. Would you be utterly offended and reject the offer or would you try to negotiate for more money? If your answer is the former, then you have identified a sacred value.

Being able to identify sacred values is critical because they must be handled differently than regular values. Rational arguments will fail (try convincing an aver- age mother that it makes sense to give up her child). Indeed, attempts to bargain over a sacralized issue will often evoke moral outrage, and even lead to disengage- ment or the embrace of violence.

Instead, sacred values must be acknowledged with respect. If they are not central to an issue, they must be avoided; if they are central to an issue, it may be possible to reframe them — but they can never be negotiated by using incentives or disincentives.

Given the all-or-nothing nature of sacred values, it is important to understand whether immigration issues in the United States have become sacralized, and if so, by whom. In other studies, immigration issues like family separation, a U.S.-Mexico border wall, or deportation of undocumented people have elicited strong emotional reactions, and the language used to describe stances on these issues is often morally absolutist. To date, however, no other studies have examined the public’s willingness to make trade-offs on them.

We surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1,370 U.S. citizens in mid-March 2020, assessing each respondent’s stance on 14 main issues that are discussed in the immigration debate todayFor each issue, respondents were asked to select which of two stances was closer to their own. For example, on the issue of Asylum:

“We should increase the number of asylum seekers allowed into the country,”

or

“We should decrease the number of asylum seekers allowed into the country.”

Respondents then rated how much the stance mattered to them. Those who selected “a lot” or “totally,” were asked to write for two minutes about why their chosen stance resonated so strongly, and to decide whether they’d be willing to make a monetary trade-off (up to $100 million) to take an action against that stance.

After assessing their willingness to make trade-offs on their immigration stances, respondents rated their agreement with taking various civic and political actions (activism), and then responded to demographic questions.

For each issue, we categorized the stances as more open (typically more welcoming and generous toward immigrants, like option A) and more restrictive (typically more focused on protecting U.S. citizens and American law and resources from outsiders, like option B).

In case we found that immigration stances were sacred values, we designed the survey so we would also be able to explain why. We asked additional questions related to:

  • Perceptions of immigration threat (in terms of economy, security, identity, and demographic makeup);
  • Sense of social belonging (measures for: perceived social support; level of community engagement; and, “social sorting”—the extent to which one’s various social identities overlap, reinforcing one’s exposure to a more narrow range of information and group norms);
  • Social rejection (perceived alienation within one’s community, the experience of discrimination);
  • Ideology and beliefs (political ideology; marginalization, i.e., feeling like a stranger in America given the changes that have occurred in the political landscape, or feeling afraid to share one’s views because of the backlash one will surely receive; belief that minority groups are unfairly favored; belief that some groups should naturally be above others in the social hierarchy; beliefs that life and resources are zero sum); and,
  • Demographics (gender, age, income, race, education, proximity to an urban area, exposure to stressors, contact with immigrants, etc.).

14 Immigration Issues Surveyed

  • Allow or punish sanctuary cities
  • Make undocumented/illegal immigration punishable by civil or criminal offense
  • Increase or decrease asylum
  • Make citizenship available to any eligible immigrant or only to English-speaking immigrants
  • Make citizenship available to any eligible immigrant or only to those who would not use benefits
  • Reduce or increase legal immigration
  • Uphold or revoke the Muslim ban 
  • Provide a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients or deport them 
  • Deport all undocumented/ illegal immigrants or only those who pose a security threat
  • Be a nation of immigrants or try to preserve a white and Christian culture
  • Make public benefits available only to legal immigrants, or also to undocumented/illegal immigrants
  • Continue or stop family separations
  • Build the U.S.–Mexico border wall or stop building it
  • Stop undocumented/illegal immigration or shift our focus to improving the functioning of our existing immigration system 

U.S. citizens consider immigration issues sacred values.

  • All 14 immigration issues in this study are considered sacred values by significant percentages of the survey sample, by those on both the right and the left.

➔ The issue of Family Separation is sacralized the most—56% of the survey sample sacralizes either the open stance (“stop family separation”) or the restrictive stance (“continue family separation”).

➔ The issue of Sanctuary Cities is sacralized the least—34% of the sample sacralizes either the open stance (“allow sanctuary cities”) or the restrictive stance (“punish sanctuary cities”).

  • Open immigration stances are generally sacralized by greater portions of the survey sample than restrictive stances.

➔ The most sacralized position on the open stance list—“stop family separation”—is held by 47% of the survey sample.

➔ The most sacralized stance on the restrictive stance list—“withhold public benefits to unauthorized immigrants”—is sacralized by 33% of the survey sample.

➔ Open immigration stances may have been more sacralized because they were under greater threat (i.e., a conservative government focused on re- strictive immigration policies). In scientific studies threat predicts greater sacralization of one’s values.

  • The ranking of open and restrictive sacred values differs.

➔ The top three sacralized open stances are:

— Stopping family separation (47%)

— Being a nation of immigrants (rather than preserving a white and Christian culture) (37%)

— Stopping construction of the border wall (33%)

➔ The top three sacralized restrictive stances are:

— Withholding public benefits from unauthorized immigrants (33%)

—Stopping undocumented immigration (22%)

—Continuing to build the border wall (21%) 

  • Liberals most often consider open immigration stances to be sacred, and conservatives most often consider restrictive immigration stances to be sacred, yet there is crossover.

➔ Conservatives considered 6 immigration stances to be sacred, on average; 3.8 of those stances were restrictive and 2.2 of them were open. Liberals sacralized 7 stances; of these, 6 were open and 1 restrictive.

➔ Liberals sacralized 7 stances; of these, 6 were open and 1 restrictive.

➔ The open stances considered sacred by the greatest percentage of conservatives and right-leaning independents, respectively, are:

— Stopping family separation (26.9 and 22.3%)

— Honoring the U.S. tradition of being a nation of immigrants (29.9% and 22.3%)

— Creating a pathway to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients (22.4% and 20.7%)

— Granting access to public benefits to anyone in the country (19.7% and 14.7%)

➔ The restrictive stances that are considered sacred by the greatest percentage of liberals and left-leaning independents, respectively, are:

— Withholding public benefits from unauthorized immigrants (17.4% and 26.27%)

— Withholding citizenship from non-English-speaking immigrants (10.3% and 10.6%)

— Stopping undocumented immigration (8.8% and 9.4%)

  • Partisanship factors into how much one sacralizes. As mentioned above, liberals have sacralized nearly 7 immigration-related issues and conservatives have sacralized 6 (this is a statistically significant difference). This partisan breakdown may be explained by the political status quo: past research shows that perceived threat causes sacralization and liberal immigration stances have been under at- tack throughout the Trump administration. Similarly, perceived threat may be less intense for those who identify as independent rather than Democrat or Republican because they may feel less under attack in mainstream rhetoric. Indeed, right-leaning and left-leaning independents sacralize 5 and 4.5 issues on average, respectively.

Sacralization is primarily driven by perceived norms, and barely driven by demographics.

To identify the configuration of beliefs and attitudes related to immigration, an essential part of a mental-models approach, we assessed respondents’ perceptions of immigration threat, factors related to their sense of social belonging and/or rejection, ideology (political, but also as regards social hierarchy and a zero-sum view of the world), and demographics.

  • The factor most strongly associated with sacralization of immigration stances— be they open or restrictive—was the perception that the stances are central to membership in one’s political group. A great deal of research has shown that norms influence people’s behaviors, but this goes further. In this survey, partisan norms didn’t just influence respondents’ positions on immigration issues, they also influenced whether or not those issues were sacralized. The fact that an issue was perceived as central to one’s political group thereby made it non-negotiable, possibly even transforming it into an implicitly processed moral rule.
  • The factors least likely to predict sacralization were demographic. In fact, demographics were not strongly associated with the extent to which respondents sacralized open or restrictive immigration stances. While open-stance sacralization generally occurred more often for females and individuals who have experienced discrimination, and restrictive-stance sacralization generally occurred more often with an increase in age,  the inclusion of demographic factors added less than 1% of explanatory power to each of these statistical models. This is a powerful finding because it means that the other components of the respondents’ mental models—their threat perceptions, their social identities, their beliefs about hierarchy and fairness in today’s society—are far better at explaining sacralization of im- migration issues, and remain significant even when controlling for demographics.
  • There were notable differences in the factors associated with open- and restrictive-stance sacralization: Respondents who hold high numbers of open stances as sacred values tend to be strongly engaged in their community, enjoy high levels of social support, and report experiences with discrimination. Respondents who hold high numbers of restrictive stances as sacred values tend to perceive high levels of economic and security threat due to immigration. They also tend to hold conservative ideological views, feel marginalized, believe minority groups are unfairly favored in today’s America, and are more “socially sorted,” meaning their social identities are strongly aligned with their partisan identity. Lastly, although adding only a very small contribution to the model, they are more likely to be restrictive-stance sacralizers as they increase in age.

The more one sacralizes open immigration stances, the more activism one supports.

  • Note: Approximately 21% of the survey sample said they would agree with joining, donating money to, or volunteering time at an organization that fights for their immigration positions, or driving an hour to attend a related rally or protest. Other factors associated with increased activism intent include: perceptions that holding one’s open or restrictive immigration stances is central to membership in one’s political group, high levels of community engagement, and more exposure to discrimination and life stressors. Factors associated with decreased activism intent include feelings of alienation, the belief that the world is zero-sum, older age, and living further from an urban center.

There are core values driving immigration-related sacred values.

We investigated the narratives behind open- and restrictive-stance sacralization by asking respondents why their sacred stances resonated so much for them. Here,   we report findings from five key immigration issues: American Identity, Family Separation, DACA, Asylum, and Sanctuary Cities.

  • American Identity is sacralized by 43.3% of the survey sample. With support from majorities across party lines, 85.5% of those who sacralize this issue take the more open stance. Narratives explaining this stance cite “hypocrisy” (our ancestors were immigrants), “fairness” (to all), the fact that immigrants help the United States “progress,” and “positive experiences with immigrants.” Only 14.5% of those who sacralize this issue support the more restrictive stance. These respondents cite the need to “protect America” from immigration-related threats to identity, security, and economic well-being, and focus on “unfairness to Americans.”
  • Family Separation is sacralized by 56.4% of the survey sample. The 82.8% of those who sacralize this issue take the more open stance, and this includes 68.2% of liberals and 30.4% of conservatives. Those sacralizing the more open stance primarily cite “moral outrage” due to the “harm and trauma” the practice causes to the families who are forced to undergo it. Only 17.2% of respondents who sacralized Family Separation consider the more restrictive stance to be sacred (this includes 17.2% of conservatives and 1.7% of liberals), citing the fact that entering the country without documents is “wrong and deserving of punishment,” and emphasizing their belief that family separation is an “effective deterrent.”

More Open Stance

“U.S. immigration policy should try to honor the American tradition of being a nation of immigrants.”

More Restrictive Stance

“U.S. immigration policy should try to preserve an American culture of being white and Christian.”

More Open Stance “Stop the practice of separating families.”

More Restrictive Stance “Continue the practice of separating families.”

  • DACA is sacralized by 40.4% of the survey sample. 20.7% of those who sacralize DACA consider the more restrictive stance to be sacred while 79.2%, com- posed of respondents from across party lines, sacralize the more open stance. Those who sacralized the open stance referenced the “well-being of DACA recip- ients,” who could experience physical or psychological danger if deported, and “eligibility,” since DACA recipients often grew up in the U.S. and have needed skills. Importantly, rationales for deporting DACA recipients are not characterized by perceptions of immigration threat; instead, they are characterized by “Ameri- cans first” (native-born and documented Americans should receive help before anyone else) and “illegality” (the idea that the moral justification for a DACA recipient's status stems from legality). These respondents consider that the DACA recipients’ parents broke the law; since these respondents don’t wish to separate families, they believe that both parents and children should be deported.
  • Asylum is sacralized by 35.1% of the survey sample. 50.7% of those who sacralize Asylum support the more open stance while 49.9% take the more restrictive stance. The more open and restrictive stances tend to gain their support from the left and right, respectively, with some crossover across parties. Those taking the more open stance cited America’s “moral obligation,” as a free country that has historically been a nation of immigrants, and emphasized that the United States has the physical and financial “capacity” to take in asylum seekers. Importantly, perceptions of immigration-related threat were not associated with restrictive- stance sacralization; instead, rationales for decreasing asylum seekers landed on themes of “scarcity,” “unfairness to Americans,” and “legality” (while people fleeing violence are deserving of protection, they must follow immigration laws and not come to the United States undocumented).
  • The issue of Sanctuary Cities is sacralized by 33.9% of the survey sample. 54.6% sacralize the more restrictive stance and 45.4%  sacralize the more open stance. In general, sacralized support for allowing sanctuary cities stems from liberal and left-leaning independents, while punishing is more often sacralized by conservative and right-leaning independents. That said, there is significant cross-partisan support for each stance. Those taking the more open stance cited “federalist principles” (that local governments have a right to set their own policies), “universal humanity” (a “they are us” narrative seen to be a core American value), and “physical safety for immigrants” (who, without sanctuary cities, would not have a safe place to live). Those taking the more restrictive stance cited legality and punishment (not following national law is a crime no matter who commits it), the idea that “federal policy should overrule local policy” (particularly in the domain of security), “unfairness to Americans” (who pay for immigrants’ health care and other services while sometimes not being able to access it themselves), and “safety for Ameri- cans” (focused on the danger posed by undocumented immigrants as criminals).

More Open  Stance
“The U.S. should protect and support children of undocumented or illegal immigrants by offering them a path to citizenship.”

More Restrictive Stance
“The U.S. should deport the children of undocumented or illegal immigrants,  even if they grew up here.”

More Open Stance
“We should decrease the number of asylum seekers we let into the country.”

More Restrictive Stance
“We should increase the number of asylum seekers we let into the country.”

More Open Stance
“We should allow local governments to create sanctuary cities.”

More Restrictive Stance
“We should punish local governments that create sanctuary cities.”

Every single one of the 14 immigration issues assessed in this survey has become sacred to a significant proportion of the survey sample. Since these sacred values are animating public debate and policymaking in America today, it becomes easy to understand why (or is partially explained by the fact that) the rhetoric and dialogue around immigration is often uncompromising, moralized, and explosive.

The survey identified 14 mainstream immigration issues and broke each into an open and restrictive stance. The more open stances were generally considered sacred by higher proportions of the population (this may be explained by the pre-election status quo: past research shows that perceived threat causes sacralization and liberal immigration stances were under attack throughout the Trump ad- ministration). The most sacralized open and restrictive stances differed in how they were ranked. In terms of partisanship, liberals currently average more sacred values than conservatives (7 versus 6).

While liberals and conservatives tend to sacralize open and restrictive stances, respectively, there is valuable crossover, or common ground. On average, conservatives sacralize  2 open stances, and liberals sacralize 1 restrictive stance. Thus, it is possible that certain values and beliefs transcend America’s partisan identities; specifically, this appears to play out on stances such as “nation of immigrants,” “stop family separation” and “support pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients.”

In order to explain why U.S. citizens sacralize what they do, we created mental models for those who tend to sacralize open versus restrictive immigration stances and assessed them via four categories: perceived threat, social belonging, ideology/ beliefs, and demographics. Critically, those who are more likely to sacralize immigration issues—whether open or restrictive—have some things in common.

First, perceived norms. The more respondents perceived that immigration issues were central to membership in their political group, the more issues they sacralized. Given this finding, it would be hard to exaggerate the influence of party leaders and party rhetoric, whether liberal or conservative. A second common predictor was “sortedness”—the greater the extent to which respondents’ social and political identities were aligned (meaning they are less exposed to people and views that differ from theirs), the greater number of issues they sacralized.

That said, the worldviews of respondents who hold higher numbers of open versus restrictive sacred values differ in profound ways. Perhaps most importantly, those who sacralize higher numbers of restrictive (but not open) stances tend to report high levels of perceived threat due to immigration; they tend also to be older, endorse conservative ideological views, carry a feeling of marginalization in today’s

America, and perceive that minority groups receive favoritism in today’s society. The rationales they offer for their restrictive stances tend toward themes of protecting the country against immigrant crime, disease, or poverty; the importance of rule of law; and fairness to U.S. citizens. In contrast, those who hold a lot of open (but not restrictive) stances as sacred values do not report feeling threatened by immigration; they do report strong community engagement and feeling socially supported; and they have often experienced discrimination. Rationales for sacralizing open- stance immigration values tend toward themes of universal humanity and morality; fairness to all (versus just U.S. citizens); acknowledgment of America’s history as a nation of immigrants; and appreciation for diversity as something that strengthens our country.

Lastly, sacralization matters beyond its implications for dialogue or negotiation—it also inspires action. This survey showed that survey respondents who sacralize more immigration issues are more willing to invest in immigration-related activism than those with fewer immigration-related sacred values.

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Implications for Practice: Communicating or Negotiating with Someone Around a Sacred Value

Whether you are a member of the public who wants to communicate better with others across immigration divides, or an immigration advocate or professional, the findings in this report point to useful principles for effective communication. Note that we did not test these approaches; instead, they stem from the general literature on how to negotiate around sacred values.

First, identify whether the immigration issue under discussion is sacred to the other side. Once you know how deeply someone else holds their stance (i.e., is it just a value or a sacred value?), you have a better idea how to engage with them. This report provides initial data toward that end, although similar research may be needed periodically since shifts in the geopolitical, political, or cultural landscape may change how immigration issues are sacralized in the United States over time.

If you have identified an issue to be a sacred value, treat it differently than you might if it were a regular value or stance. Rather than jumping into debate, try to learn more about the mental models of the people you’re dealing with—their beliefs, attitudes, threat perceptions, general sense of societal belonging, etc. Try to discover why they sacralize the issue. Do they, for example, perceive a threat to law and order or to universal rights? (These values are prominent for conservatives and liberals, respectively.) You might dig deeper, seeking to understand the intention behind the sacralization, which is often tied up in a sense of personal or nationalistic honor (e.g., protecting families or the nation, defending fairness). You might even affirm the sacralizer by acknowledging the intent behind their stance. Showing respect for the sacralizer and the values underlying the sacred stance should always be a priority.

People with sacred, opposing stances can work to discover core underlying values that both sides hold in common—and those values or perspectives can then be affirmed. If this common ground is found, a new dialogue can begin.

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