Skip to content Skip to footer

Ira Chernus | Why Are So Many Americans Scared of Undocumented Immigrants?

As long as our national life revolves around unrealistic, hyped-up fears of “foreign invaders” and “illegal aliens,” we all lose.

As long as our national life revolves around unrealistic, hyped-up fears of “foreign invaders” and “illegal aliens,” we all lose.

“The overwhelming majority of Americans think the country’s immigration policies need to be seriously overhauled.” And most Americans support Arizona’s stringent new immigration enforcement law, “even though they say it may lead to racial profiling.” That’s the finding of the latest New York Times / CBS News poll, according to the Times article summarizing the poll.

No surprise, huh? Anyone who is paying attention to the mass media probably believes that the U.S. is in a pretty ugly anti-immigrant mood.

But that belief comes more from media hype than real facts. Buried in that NYT / CBS poll (though ignored in the summary article) are these startling items:

33% of the respondents say “America should always welcome all immigrants.” Always! All! And only 21% of the poll respondents identified as liberals. Even if all of them gave this answer, it still leaves about a third of self-identified moderates wanting our nation’s doors open to anyone and everyone, all the time. That’s amazing.

Another 34% of respondents say “America should always welcome some immigrants, but not others.” Only 27% of all respondents say “America cannot afford to open its doors to any newcomers.” Back in 1994, when the nation was supposedly in a much more confident, expansive mood, only 19% wanted to welcome all immigrants, while 34% wanted no new immigrants at all.

49% now say “most recent immigrants to the United States contribute to this country”; only 31% say “most of them cause problems.” In a 1993 poll the numbers were almost exactly reversed. Clearly, the nation is moving in a pro-immigration direction.

Why, then, are the Democrats apparently moving in just the opposite direction? The outline for an immigration overhaul that the Dems unveiled last week in the Senate “lays down a new starting point for any national debate: tough immigration enforcement. … The enforcement would be more far-reaching than anything in place now — or anything proposed by the administration of President George W. Bush,” the Times reported. “Across the board you see language that would be very comfortable in a proposal written by Republicans,” one pundit commented — to which Times reporter Julia Preston added: “The move to a more security-minded consensus comes as the Democrats face a challenging midterm election season.”

The crucial point, which the Dems apparently understand, is that public opinion is not against immigration and immigrants. It’s against illegal immigration and immigrants. It’s not the immigration but the law-breaking that bothers so many people. According to the latest poll, 78% think “the United States could [and presumably should] be doing more along its border to keep illegal immigrants out” (though less than a third want illegal immigrants actually deported).

Why all this passion, even anger, about illegal immigration? It’s a symptom of a chronic underlying disease in American culture: the growing fear that the familiar borders and boundaries that give life its secure structure are breaking down.

But what borders and boundaries? It’s important to understand this fear accurately, since it lies at the heart of such a major issue in this year’s elections. Ever since there has been a United States, many of its citizens (especially its white citizens) have worried about keeping a strict boundary line between “us” and “the foreigners.” With more and more people welcoming immigrants, that worry is steadily diminishing. It’s no longer the central concern.

Racism — the boundary between “white” and “non-white” — is a factor, no doubt. But it is apparently not as salient as many think. Everyone knows that the vast majority of immigrants coming now and in the future will not be from white Europe. They’ll be people of color. Yet two-thirds of the public still support immigration for all or some of them.

Since the public concern is about illegal immigrants, perhaps the crucial, fear-inducing line is between the lawful and the lawless. And indeed, in the NYT/CBS poll, 54% believe it “will reduce crime in that state.” Yet it’s hard to see why they think so, since 78% say the law “will burden the resources of state and local police departments,” and 80% think “the new law will deter immigrants from reporting crime or cooperating with authorities out of fear of being deported.” And then there’s the small but notable minority who support the law even though they don’t think it will reduce crime. So it seems unlikely that the hope of reducing crime is the central factor at work here.

Let’s hope that true, because the belief that illegal immigrants are more likely to commit crime is another myth. In fact, says Doris Meissner, former head of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, “foreign-born rates of criminal activity — among legal and illegal immigrants — are significantly less than that of native-born.”

So what border line is really at stake here? What’s the main source of public fear? Watch any TV news report on the immigration issue and you’ll have your answer in a few seconds. It’s the physical, geographical border of the United States — the border that the camera will inevitably show immigrants (virtually always Latinos) jumping, running, tunneling, or swimming across.

Americans have not always been so worried about the integrity of their geographical borders. From the mid-19th century on into the early 20th, fear of attack from abroad waned and then virtually disappeared. In the late 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt tried to revive that fear, he faced an uphill task. Most Americans assumed that they were physically safe from attack by foreigners.

FDR grabbed at any rhetorical tool that might swing public opinion in the opposite direction, to back his plans to resist the Nazis. Playing on the homey imagery of his “fireside chats,” he said: “We seek to keep war from our firesides by keeping war from coming to the Americas.” After the Germans conquered nearly all of western Europe, Roosevelt warned: “At no previous time has American security been as seriously threatened from without as it is today.” He treated each family’s home and the entire nation as two sides of a single sacred entity. He treated war and Nazism as two sides of a single threat to that sacred entity.

Thus Roosevelt laid the groundwork for public acceptance of the basic idea that has dominated American public life ever since: Our nation must be ever vigilant against enemies who are plotting, night and day, to cross our borders and destroy us. The name of the enemy has changed several times: first Nazis and Japs, then Commies, then terrorists.

In recent years the fear of terrorist attack from abroad has waned. Most polls that asked “What’s the most important issue facing the country?” in the last year no longer even bothered to list “terrorism” as an option. Those that did found it way down on the list. Occasional scares like the recent botched car-bomb in Times Square don’t seem to change that result.

But the question, “How can we keep our borders secure against the evil-doers?” remains a powerful element — very possibly the fundamental element — in American political culture. With no other threatening foreigners in sight, the illegal immigrants, who prove how porous and easily violated our borders are, become the target of choice.

Oh, yes. Some other important numbers from that NYT / CBS poll, which Democratic party strategists will surely take note of. Three quarters of the respondents believe that “illegal immigrants are a drain on the economy.” Most research shows that’s a myth; in fact, more immigrants, whether legal or not, mean more jobs for everyone and a more robust economy.

A gap between myth and reality shows up in another statistic too: While we’re told that the unemployment rate is hovering just under 10%, in this poll fully 18% say they were “temporarily out of work” but “in the market for work.” That sounds like 18% unemployed to me. And nearly two-thirds say they are concerned that in the next 12 months they or someone else in their household might be out of work and looking for a job.

Since the early 1940s, Americans have feared foreigners invading the nation’s geographical borders, even in relatively prosperous times. But that fear has often grown when there’s also been widespread fear of joblessness and poverty. The big political challenge for the Democrats in this year’s election is to somehow get past the pervasive economic anxiety that haunts the nation. Fears of “illegal aliens” violating our sacred borders might just be their winning ticket.

But as long as our national life revolves so much around unrealistic, hyped-up fears of “foreign invaders” and “illegal aliens,” we all lose.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and American Jews on his blog: