Americans Really Worry About Immigration When They Pay Attention to It

Concern spiked in the last month from 5 percent to 17 percent.

Pro-immigration activist Ricardo Reyes yells at anti-immigration activists during a protest along Mt. Lemmon Road on Jully 15, 2014 in Oracle, Arizona.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
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Kaveh Waddell
July 16, 2014, 5:55 a.m.

The bor­der crisis is con­stantly in the news these days, and it’s got­ten Amer­ic­ans con­cerned: One in six now say im­mig­ra­tion is the most im­port­ant prob­lem fa­cing the U.S. today. In June, only one in 20 Amer­ic­ans had the same an­swer.

A Gal­lup Poll re­leased today shows that im­mig­ra­tion is neck and neck with dis­sat­is­fac­tion with gov­ern­ment for the title of most-im­port­ant U.S. prob­lem. Of the Amer­ic­ans polled, a com­bined 33 per­cent said that one of those two is­sues is the most press­ing. The eco­nomy and un­em­ploy­ment fol­low as con­tenders for the fo­cus of Amer­ic­ans’ worry.

But a look at the his­tor­ic­al data shows that im­mig­ra­tion rarely ranks as high as it did in Ju­ly. In Janu­ary, only 3 per­cent called it the most press­ing is­sue. By con­trast, some fa­cet of the eco­nomy has been the top con­cern for at least 40 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans since 2008, peak­ing at 86 per­cent in 2009.

The in­ter­mit­tent at­ten­tion that im­mig­ra­tion re­ceives is driv­en in large part by events that thrust the is­sue in­to the spot­light. Con­cern over im­mig­ra­tion last peaked once in 2010 and twice in 2006: The 2010 peak cor­res­pon­ded with news of a con­tro­ver­sial im­mig­ra­tion law in Ari­zona; 2006 saw con­gres­sion­al de­bate over im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

A par­tis­an split in today’s data is telling: Twice as many Re­pub­lic­ans as Demo­crats poin­ted to im­mig­ra­tion as the most press­ing is­sue, sug­gest­ing that con­cern over il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion, rather than im­mig­ra­tion re­form to­ward a path­way to cit­izen­ship, is driv­ing pub­lic in­terest.

Giv­en how quickly im­mig­ra­tion surged in­to the spot­light and how fast con­cerns over health care have faded — it was the top con­cern for 16 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans in Janu­ary and now clocks in at 8 per­cent — it’s likely that this wave of in­terest will quickly be swept aside by the next big is­sue in Amer­ic­ans’ minds.

The Gal­lup Poll sur­veyed 1,013 adults in all 50 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia from Ju­ly 7-10. The mar­gin of er­ror is plus or minus 4 per­cent­age points.

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