The future status of the approximately 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States arouses strong moral arguments. Supporters of legalization and a path to citizenship often draw on the language of human rights, arguing that the blind eye of officials have sanctioned the creation of an exploited underclass who in many ways benefit the American economy. By contrast, opponents of legalization often respond by invoking moral considerations of their own, principally the paramount value of obeying the law. For them, legalization and a path to citizenship constitute “amnesty,” the rewarding of a criminal act and unjust treatment of those immigrants who have “played by the rules.” This moral debate has an all-or-nothing character, ignoring the usual markers of outgroup status – race, religious affiliation, human capital, and so on – that have preoccupied the literature on immigration attitudes.
To what extent do these categorical, all-or-nothing judgments manifest themselves in public opinion? We explore this question using conjoint-choice experiments in which national samples of respondents are asked to choose between pair of profiles of illegal immigrants varying at random across an array of attributes. We find that roughly 40% of respondents express categorical opinions toward a hypothetical (yet realistic) legalization program, with the substantial majority of these on the “no” side.
What accounts for this rigidity? Although categorical opposition is tied to standard gauges of out-group hostility (ethnocentrism, for example), these measures provide no leverage in explaining why three times more Americans categorically oppose illegal than legal immigration. Instead, categorical opposition to illegal immigration is distinctively tied to perceptions that a variety of infractions unrelated to immigration are “serious.”
The prevalence of categorical opinion also declines substantially when our respondents assess “Dreamers” who were brought to the United States as children and therefore had no initial agency in violating the law. Taken together, these results suggest that many categorical opponents of a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants are motivated by a rigid insistence on abiding by rules. This principled stance does not appear merely to serve as “cover” for prejudice or anti-immigrant sentiment generally.
The pervasiveness of categorical opinion may help explain why compromises on a path to citizenship have been so difficult to forge despite majority support for the policy in the abstract. A large bloc of public opposition to a path to citizenship is to an important degree grounded in rigid principle rather than utilitarian calculus. Such opposition cannot be defused by tailoring a legalization program’s inclusion criteria on the basis of immigrants’ levels of integration or human capital. The silver lining for supporters of comprehensive immigration reform may be that principles of law and order can be acknowledged and addressed legislatively in ways that covert ethnocentrism cannot. Categorical opponents in our studies were unmoved by immigrants’ command of English, technical sophistication, or even family ties to the U.S., which indicates that commonly deployed frames in this debate will not be effective with this group. Programs restricted to “dreamers” or more expansive policies that impose procedural requirements such as payment of a fine might meet with more success