Political Behavior

, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 229–253 | Cite as

Public Attitudes Toward Immigration Policy Across the Legal/Illegal Divide: The Role of Categorical and Attribute-Based Decision-Making

  • Matthew WrightEmail author
  • Morris Levy
  • Jack Citrin
Original Paper


Scholars debate the relative strength of economic and ‘socio-psychological’ sources of anti-immigrant sentiment. However, the literature often fails to distinguish legal from illegal immigration and therefore overlooks a major instance in which this debate is moot. To address this issue, we develop a theory that recognizes two different modes of evaluating immigrants: “attribute-based” judgment, in which respondents weigh immigrants’ desirability based on individual characteristics—human capital, race, language ability, and so on—and “categorical” judgment, which disregards these altogether. Categorical judgments arise when a policy issue triggers blanket considerations of justice or principle that obviate considerations about putative beneficiaries’ individual merits, instead evoking overriding beliefs about the desirability of the policy as a whole or casting the entire category as uniformly deserving or undeserving. We use experimental evidence from two national surveys to show that the principal distinction between attitudes toward legal and illegal immigration is not in the relative weight of immigrants’ attributes but the much greater prevalence of categorical assessments of illegal immigration policy, much of it rooted in rigid moralistic convictions about the importance of strict adherence to rules and laws.


Immigration Public opinion United States Conjoint Illegal immigration Path to citizenship 



We wish to thank all of those who provided constructive feedback on this manuscript over the course of its development. This includes anonymous reviewers, individual readers too numerous to list, participants at two rounds of the Comparative Approaches to Immigration, Ethnicity, and Religion workshop (at MIT in 2013 and Stanford in 2014), and those who attended presentations at the annual meetings of the MPSA in 2013 and 2014. We take full responsibility for any errors of fact or judgment.

Supplementary material

11109_2015_9311_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (457 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 457 kb)


  1. Berg, J. A. (2009). White public opinion toward undocumented immigrants: Threat and interpersonal environment. Sociological Perspectives, 52, 39–58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Brader, T., Valentino, N. A., & Suhay, E. (2008). What triggers public opinion to immigration? Anxiety, group cues, and immigration threat. American Journal of Political Science, 52, 959–978.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Branton, R., Cassesse, E. C., Jones, B. S., & Westerland, C. (2011). All along the watchtower: Acculturation fear, anti-Latino affect, and immigration. Journal of Politics, 73, 664–679.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Citrin, J., Reingold, B., & Green, D. P. (1990). American identity and the politics of ethnic change. Journal of Politics, 52, 1124–1154.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Dancygier, R., & Saunders, E. (2006). A new electorate? Comparing preferences and partisanship between immigrants and natives. American Journal of Political Science, 50, 962–981.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dunaway, J., Branton, R. P., & Abrajano, M. A. (2010). Agenda setting, public opinion, and the issue of immigration reform. Social Science Quarterly, 91, 359–378.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Hainmueller, J., & Hangartner, D. (2013). Who gets a Swiss passport? A natural experiment in immigrant discrimination. American Political Science Review, 107, 159–187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Hainmueller, J., & Hiscox, M. (2010). Attitudes toward highly skilled and low-skilled immigration. American Political Science Review, 104, 61–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Hainmueller, J., & Hopkins, D. (2014a). Public attitudes toward immigration. Annual Review of Political Science, 17, 225–249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Hainmueller, J., & Hopkins, D. J. (2014). The hidden American immigration consensus: A conjoint analysis of attitudes toward immigrants, American Journal of Political Science. Currently available as SSRN Working Paper 2106616.Google Scholar
  11. Hainmueller, J., Hopkins, D. J., & Yamamoto, T. (2014). Understanding Multi-Dimensional Choices via Stated Preference Experiments. Political Analysis, 22, 1–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hanson, G. H., Scheve, K., & Slaughter, M. J. (2007). Public finance and individual preferences over globalization strategies. Economics and Politics, 19, 1–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hartman, T. K., Newman, B. J., & Bell, C. S. (2014). Decoding prejudice toward hispanics: Group cues and public reactions to threatening behavior. Political Behavior, 36, 143–163.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hopkins, D. J. (2010). Politicized places: Explaining where and when immigrants provoke local opposition. American Political Science Review, 104, 40–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Hopkins, D. J. (2013). The upside of accents: Language, skin tone, and attitudes toward immigration. SSRN Working Paper 1879965.Google Scholar
  16. Jacobs, C., & Theiss-Morse, E. (2013). Belonging in a ‘Christian Nation’: The explicit and implicit associations between religion and national group membership. Politics and Religion, 6, 373–401. doi: 10.01017/S1755048312000697.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Jost, J. T., Federico, C. M., & Napier, J. L. (2009). Political ideology: Its structure, functions, and elective affinities. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 307–337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Kalkan, K. O., Layman, G. C., & Uslaner, E. M. (2009). Bands of others? Attitudes towards Muslims in contemporary American Society. Journal of Politics, 71, 847–862.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Kinder, D. R., & Kam, C. D. (2009). Us against them: Ethnocentric foundations of American opinion. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Kinder, D. R., & Sanders, L. M. (1996). Divided by color: Racial politics and democratic ideals. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  21. Knoll, B. R. (2009). And who is my neighbor? Religion and immigration policy attitudes. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 48, 313–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Masuoka, N., & Junn, J. (2013). The politics of belonging: Race, public opinion, and immigration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Merolla, J. S., Ramakrishnan, K., & Haynes, C. (2013). ‘Illegal’, ‘Undocumented’, or ‘Unauthorized’: Equivalency frames, issue frames, and public opinion on immigration. Perspectives on Politics, 11(3), 789–807.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Newman, B. J., Hartman, T. K., & Taber, C. S. (2012). Foreign language exposure, cultural threat, and opposition to immigration. Political Psychology, 33, 635–657.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Ramakrishnan, K., Esterling, K., & Neblo, M. (2010). Illegality, national origin cues, and public opinion on immigration. Unpublished Manuscript. Retrieved from
  26. Rocha, R. R., Longoria, T., Wrinkle, R. D., Knoll, B. R., Polinard, J. L., & Wenzel, J. P. (2011). Ethnic context and immigration policy preferences among Latinos and Anglos. Social Science Quarterly, 92, 1–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ryan, T. J. (2014). Reconsidering moral issues in politics. Journal of Politics, 76, 380–397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Ryan, T. J. (2015). No compromise: Political consequences of moralized attitudes. Unpublished.Google Scholar
  29. Schildkraut, D. (2011). Americanism in the twenty-first century: Public opinion in the age of immigration. New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Schildkraut, D. (2012). Amnesty, Guest Workers, Fences! Oh My! Public Opinion about ‘Comprehensive Immigration Reform’. In G. P. Freeman, R. Hansen, & D. L. Leal (Eds.), Immigration and public opinion in liberal democracies (pp. 207–231). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  31. Sides, J., & Gross, K. (2013). Stereotypes of Muslims and support for the war on terror. Journal of Politics, 75, 583–598.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Smith, R. (1997). Civic ideals: Conflicting visions of citizenship in U.S. history. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Sniderman, P. M., & Hagendoorn, L. (2007). When ways of life collide: Multiculturalism and its discontents in the Netherlands. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Sniderman, P. M., Hagendoorn, L., & Prior, M. (2004). Predisposing factors and situational triggers. American Political Science Review, 98, 35–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Sniderman, P. M., Piazza, T., Tetlock, P. E., & Kendrick, A. (1991). The new racism. American Journal of Political Science, 35, 423–447.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Theiss-Morse, E. (2009). Who counts as an American? The boundaries of national identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Tichenor, D. J. (2002). Dividing lines: The politics of immigration control in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  38. Tichenor, D. J. (2012). Immigration policy: Polarized politics, elusive reform. World Politics Review. Accessed 9 July 2015.
  39. Valentino, N. A., Brader, T., & Jardina, A. E. (2012). Immigration opposition among U.S. Whites: General ethnocentrism or media priming of attitudes about Latinos? Political Psychology, 34, 149–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Valentino, N. A., & Iyengar, S. (2011). Skin vs. skill: Exploring economic vs. racial threats as drivers of immigration opinion in the comparative context. Paper presented at the 2011 meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. Chicago, IL.Google Scholar
  41. Wong, C. J. (2010). Boundaries of obligation in American politics: Geographic, national, and racial communities. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Wright, M., Citrin, J., & Wand, J. (2012). Alternative measures of American national identity: Implications for the civic-ethnic distinction. Political Psychology, 33, 469–482.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.American UniversityWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.University of Southern CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA
  3. 3.University of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

Personalised recommendations