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Immigration in the 2021 American Values Survey: Religious Diversity and the ‘Contact Hypothesis’
Laura Alexander, Ph.D.,
Topics: Immigration

The latest PRRI public opinion findings about immigration in the United States show a correlation between religious demographics and opinions about immigration. There are no clear correlations among reported opinions of members of the Christian tradition, the largest religious group in the survey, despite their shared religious identity; instead, racial demographics and the “type” of Christian community a person identifies with make more of a difference for ideas about immigration than Christian identity itself.

When respondents were asked whether the U.S. political system should provide a way for immigrants who are currently in the U.S. without legal status to start on a path to citizenship, opinions ranged from 47% of white evangelical Protestants who answered yes to 75% of Black Protestants who answered yes. White Catholics supported a path to citizenship at 54%, Hispanic Catholics at 70%, white mainline Protestants at 59%, and those who identified with other Christian groups at 65%. This does show majority support for a path to citizenship among all groups except white evangelical Protestants, but the spectrum of responses indicates disagreement among different groups of Christians.

Similarly, when asked whether the United States should pass a law to prevent refugees from entering, Christian groups gave a range of responses. The differences were less stark than on the issue of undocumented immigration, but there were differences nonetheless. For instance, only 11% of Black Protestants “strongly favored” passing a law to keep refugees out, while 23% of white evangelical Protestants said the same. Black Protestants’ viewpoints on this question more closely resembled those of religiously unaffiliated Americans (10% “strongly favored” such a law) than white evangelical Protestants and white Catholics. Again, opinions on refugee resettlement correlate with the Christian tradition respondents identify with.

Regardless of religious affiliation, there does seem to be more evidence for what sociologists and other researchers call the “contact hypothesis.” The contact hypothesis suggests that people who know or work closely with people who have a different social identity are more likely to feel warmly toward and favor policies that support that group.

Interestingly, people who have experience with different religious groups hold somewhat more favorable attitudes toward immigrants and refugees. According to data from the American Values Survey, people who agree with the statement “I have built a relationship with a coworker, neighbor, or classmate who follows a different religion than my own” are likely to support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants: 66% support a path to citizenship, while only 18% say that undocumented immigrants should be identified and deported. Of respondents who state that “I have worked closely with someone from a different religion than my own on projects in my community,” 68% support a path to citizenship, versus 18% who support “identify and deport.” Both of these groups of respondents feel more positive toward a pathway to citizenship than all Americans, among whom 62% support a path to citizenship and 22% support “identify and deport.”

While further research is necessary to understand whether relationships with someone of another religion are a cause or effect of more favorable attitudes toward immigration or whether the two are related in more complicated ways, the American Values Survey does provide intriguing information about connections between religious diversity and opinions on immigration among American respondents.

Laura Alexander is a member of the 2021-2022 cohort of PRRI Public Fellows.