Is this attitude toward immigration motivated by exposure to automation/outsourcing? (ARON P. BERNSTEIN/ GETTY IMAGES)
Is this attitude toward immigration motivated by exposure to automation/outsourcing? (ARON P. BERNSTEIN/ GETTY IMAGES)

Abstract

Does ‘economic anxiety’ explain attitudes toward immigration or can we better understand attitudes toward immigration as a function of ethnocentrism and racial resentment? This is a long-standing empirical debate in immigration opinion research and the election of Donald Trump, who consistently communicated anti-immigration hysteria on the campaign trail, has only intensified the salience of this debate. However, any focus on this debate by reference to the 2016 presidential election will struggle to distinguish the relative effects of ‘economic anxiety’ and racial resentment because the current political climate is one in which racial resentment may also influence attitudes about the economy. I help settle this debate with a battery of analyses on attitudes toward immigration across the American National Election Studies and Voter Study Group data, spanning analyses on immigration opinion for white Americans from 1992 to 2016. I further leverage the metadata these data provide by estimating the effects of unemployment and exposure to automation/outsourcing at levels as granular as the state, the county, the ZIP code, and the core-based statistical area. My analyses are unequivocal that racial resentment is reliably the largest and most precise predictor of attitudes toward immigration. Further analyses and simulations from a cherry-picked model most consistent with the ‘economic anxiety’ argument show that a standard deviation increase in racial resentment is still a greater magnitude effect than all ‘economic anxiety’ proxies combined and set to their conceivable max. I close with implications for immigration opinion research, given its increased salience after 2016.