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Mass Opinion and Immigration Policy in the United States: Re-Assessing Clientelist and Elitist Perspectives

  • Morris Levy, Matthew Wright and Jack Citrin

Abstract

We argue that widely accepted elitist and “clientelist” models of immigration policy in the United States unduly minimize popular pressure on policy-making. These models portray majority opinion in ways that fail to recognize divergence between the public’s abstract goals for immigration policy and its support for the concrete policy changes needed to achieve them. As a result, they obscure many important instances in which immigration policy accords with public preferences despite counter-pressure from elites and organized lobbies. We demonstrate this point by identifying and explaining gaps between generalized attitudes and beliefs about specific policies in the domains of both legal and illegal immigration, showing that status quo legal admissions policies are not starkly at odds with majority preferences and that, contrary to interpretations of most commercial polling on the topic, majorities reject specific aspects of legalization programs that organized lobbies insist on as components of a “grand bargain” to overhaul an immigration system widely viewed as “broken.” Appreciating the nuance in mass opinion toward immigration policy helps explain policy stagnation that confounds elitist models and suggests that forging ahead with immigration reform will require persuading the public and not only successful bargaining among elites and interest groups.

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