Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Whites' Attitudes toward Immigrants and Immigration Policy: Are Multiracial Individuals a Source of Group Threat or Intergroup Contact?

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Whites' Attitudes toward Immigrants and Immigration Policy: Are Multiracial Individuals a Source of Group Threat or Intergroup Contact?

Article excerpt

This study uses multilevel modeling with data from the 2010 U.S. Census and the Pew Research Center's 2006 and 2011 surveys to examine the relationship between the relative size of the multiracial population, specifically mixed-race whites, in metropolitan areas and the immigration attitudes of native-born non-Hispanic whites. The results indicate that whites who live in metropolitan areas with higher percentages of mixed-race whites are more likely to hold comparatively immigrant-friendly attitudes in general and specifically toward immigration levels, taxes, and employment, supporting contact theory. With increases in the multiracial population, whites are likely to adopt a more complex conception of race over time, leading to context-specific and topic-centered attitudes toward immigrants and immigration policy.

In the United States, there is considerable variation in the immigration attitudes of native-born non-Hispanic whites (Ceobanu and Escandell 2010; Pew Research Center 2012). Prior empirical research documents significant differences in opinions regarding the characteristics of immigrants, such as whether or not immigrants work hard (Fennelly and Federico 2008), commit crime (Ha 2010), and hurt the economy (Rocha et al. 2011). At the same time, white Americans differ in their opinions about immigration policy. Some are content with the current immigration levels, while others want the government to decrease them (Hopkins 2010), especially illegal immigration (Knoll 2009). White Americans also debate whether or not unauthorized immigrants should be offered temporary work permits or amnesty (Ayers et al. 2009; Lee, Ottati, and Hussain 2001). Such immigration opinions reflect the extent to which the United States and its communities offer a welcoming environment, which is associated with foreigners' intentions to immigrate (Becerra 2012), as well as their prospects for assimilation (Waters and Jimenez 2005), and their experiences of intergroup harmony once in the country (cf. Dixon 2006). White Americans' immigration opinions are also influential in terms of affecting the voting decisions of U.S. policy makers (Tichenor 2002), and immigration policies have an impact on all social groups because they change the likelihood of important social relationships, such as marriage (Lee and Bean 2004; Ono and Berg 2010), and the likelihood of social equality and economic growth (Keeton and Newton 2005; Waters and Eschbach 1995).

To explain the variation in whites' racial and ethnic attitudes, and in particular their immigration attitudes, there is a long history in the research literature that focuses on the relative size of the minority population (Blalock 1967; Ceobanu and Escandell 2010). As Taylor (1998:512) says, "numbers count." Whites feel and act differently when they are surrounded by a large number of individuals who share their own race or ethnicity compared to when they are surrounded by people who claim a different race or ethnicity. The demographic context of an area consequently affects attitudinal development. Scholars have found an association between whites' immigration attitudes and the size of the minority population at the level of neighborhoods (Oliver and Wong 2003), metropolitan areas (Ha 2010), counties (Hopkins 2010), regions (Berg 2009), and nations (McLaren 2003).

The two primary theoretical perspectives that incorporate the size of the minority population in their explanations of attitudes are group threat and intergroup contact. The basic argument of a group threat perspective is that a higher relative percentage of minorities in an area leads members of the majority group to experience a heightened degree of fear that they will lose finite resources, fear that leads to anti-minority and anti-immigrant attitudes (Blalock 1967; Ceobanu and Escandell 2010; Quillian 1995). The intergroup contact perspective argues that a greater proportion of minorities in an area offers members of the majority group more opportunities to interact with members of the minority group, and it is the interaction between the two groups that dispels perceptions of threat and leads to pro-minority and pro-immigrant attitudes, assuming certain interpersonal conditions are met (Allport 1954; Escandell and Ceobanu 2009; Pettigrew 1998). …

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