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Patriotic Americans Are Pro-Immigration

New research finds nationalism is not strongly associated with anti-immigrant views.
Supporters wave U.S. flags as they attend the Rally for America event at Marshall University stadium on May 24th, 2003, in Huntington, West Virginia.

Given the prominence and volume of those voices expressing fear and dislike of immigrants—especially of the undocumented variety—it's easy to forget that theirs is a minority opinion. A Gallup poll released earlier this year found 75 percent of Americans think immigration is "generally a good thing" for the country.

A new analysis of public views on the politically charged topic provides a nuanced look at public opinion on this topic—and comes to some fascinating conclusions. For one: More patriotic Americans also tend to be more pro-immigration.

Daniel K. Pryce of North Carolina Central University analyzed data from the 2014 General Social Survey to try to pin down which mindsets are linked to pro- and anti-immigrant sentiments. His paper, published in the Social Science Quarterly, is based on answers provided by 1,274 Americans who took the survey that year.

Attitudes toward immigration were measured by responses to two statements: "Immigrants are generally good for America's economy" and "Immigrants make America more open to new ideas and cultures." Participants responded using a scale of one (strongly agree) to five (strongly disagree).

Other questionnaires were designed to measure participants' levels of patriotism, nationalism, and xenophobia—distinct concepts with definitions that sometimes get muddied in the public discourse. "Patriotism," Pryce writes, is "a state of mind that makes a citizen proud of his or her country."

In contrast, nationalism "may be understood as elevating America above all other nations." And xenophobia consists of hostility toward people seen as outsiders or foreigners, who are seen as threatening the health of the culture and/or the economy.

Patriotism was measured by asking participants how proud they were of America "in the way its democracy works," "in the way its social security system works," and "in its fair and equal treatment of all groups in society." They responded to each on a scale of one (very proud) to four (not proud at all).

Nationalism was measured by their level of agreement (on a five-point scale) with three statements: "Generally speaking, people should support America even if the country is in the wrong"; "Generally speaking, America is a better country than most other countries"; and "The world would be a better place if people from other countries were more like Americans."

Participants similarly responded to three statements reflecting xenophobia: "Immigrants increase crime rates"; "American culture is generally undermined by immigrants"; and "Immigrants take jobs away from people who were born in America." Finally, they responded to a statement reflecting a very different attitude: "I feel more like a citizen of the world than of any other country."

Confirming prior research, Pryce found younger Americans and women were more pro-immigration than older Americans and men. To no one's surprise, "the greater U.S. citizens' xenophobic sentiments, the less likely they were to hold pro-immigration attitudes." Conversely, the more they identified as "citizens of the world," the more likely they were to welcome immigrants.

More strikingly, he found higher levels of patriotism were associated with a stronger pro-immigrant stance. Pryce notes that one can feel strongly attached to your group (in this case, fellow countrymen) but still have respect for those considered outsiders. This "may translate into greater willingness to welcome immigrants," he writes.

OK, but surely nationalism—the belief that America is superior to all other nations—is associated with hatred of immigrants, right? Actually, no. Pryce found no statistically significant relationship between this mindset and sentiments toward immigration. Perhaps a good number of America-first types are pleased to see outsiders wanting to move here, given that it validates their world view.

The interesting question now, Pryce notes, is whether President Donald Trump's loud and persistent opposition to immigration (of both the legal and illegal variety) will change public opinion. He notes that, traditionally, political leaders have "tapped into patriotism to stir emotions of unity, loyalty, and civic responsibility in the nation's citizens."

Given that the current administration is effectively equating patriotism with exclusionary attitudes, it's conceivable the attitudes captured here could shift over the next few years, in one direction or another.

But this research shows that, for most Americans, there is no contradiction between love of country and a welcoming attitude toward those who wish to move here. The idea that we are "a nation of immigrants" has deep roots, and it won't be undone easily.