Are American Workers Economically Threatened by Immigrants?

Blog post by: Neil Malhotra, Yotam Margalit, and Cecilia Mo

As the 113th session of the US Congress comes to a close, a glaring policymaking failure is the inability to craft legislation to deal with undocumented immigrants. With much of the blame for gridlock at the feet of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, journalists have questioned why constituents in GOP districts are opposed to expanding legal pathways for immigration.

Both scholars and political analysts have generally focused on two explanations for why citizens oppose immigration: economic threat and cultural threat. With respect to the former, some have argued that the competition that immigrants pose for jobs — either replacing native workers or suppressing their wages — is a principal source of apprehension about immigration. The second explanation — cultural threat — argues that individuals reject immigration because foreigners pose a threat to the “national identity” or the traditional “way of life.” For example, immigrants often speak different languages, worship different Gods, or dress in different ways.

Public opinion scholars have suggested that cultural threat is a more important explanation for opposition to immigration than economic threat, with some studies concluding that labor-market threat is basically a non-factor in explaining attitudes toward immigration. Our article, “Economic Explanations for Opposition to Immigration:  Distinguishing Between Prevalence and Conditional Impact”, challenges this strong view that discounts the role of economic threat on immigration attitudes.

We distinguish between two ideas in the study of anti-immigrant sentiment — prevalence and conditional impact. By “prevalence,” we mean: Is this type of threat common throughout the population? By “conditional impact,” we mean: Does this type of threat have an impact for a particular group of people?

Cultural threat is easily detectable because it is both prevalent and high in conditional impact. People with different labor skills working across different industries can all be culturally threatened by the same immigrant. However, economic threat is often not detected because it can be high in conditional impact but low in prevalence. For instance, an increase in U.S.-based nurses might not feel threatened by visas granted to computer scientists; in contrast, a policy to bring in nurses from the Philippines may well be seen as posing a large threat.

Our study explains people’s attitudes toward a particular type of immigrant —holders of H-1B visas. These visas have two important features germane to our study: they are dominated by the high-technology sector and are increasingly occupied by Indian immigrants. Over half of recent H1-B visa holders (52%) were born in India and one in every two workers is employed in computer-related occupations.

By focusing on attitudes toward H-1B visas — held mostly by those likely to compete with native high-technology workers — we consider a case in which theories of cultural and labor-market threat produce contrasting predictions, allowing us to disentangle the impact of these two sources of opposition. In this case, highly educated Americans who tend to feel lower levels of xenophobia are economically threatened while lower-educated Americans who tend to have stronger levels of cultural threat are not economically threatened. Most other studies examine immigrants from Latin America, who pose “correlated” threats: low-skill, low-income workers are most likely to be both culturally and economically threatened, making it difficult to tease apart the two explanations.

We conducted a nationwide public opinion survey, interviewing extra people in counties with high concentrations of technology workers (think Silicon Valley and Northern Virginia). We found that high-technology workers are substantially more likely to support a decrease in the number of H-1B visas to foreign workers than are otherwise similar respondents employed in other sectors (an 11 percentage points shift). Even technology workers who do not express cultural threat are 10 percentage points more likely to oppose H-1B visa expansion. The effects are even stronger among high-technology workers who feel high levels of job insecurity. At the same time, technology workers are no more likely than other workers to oppose Indian immigration generally, suggesting that it is the economic threat specifically that they are concerned about.

Of course, relatively few workers are employed in the high technology sector, and more generally, few Americans’ jobs are directly threatened by immigrants. Therefore, economic threat has conditional impact but is not prevalent.

When thinking about what this implies for U.S. policymaking, the broad debates about the legalization of undocumented immigrants likely is subject to cultural concerns, as these are prevalent throughout the population. Economic threat, such as the recent debate about H-1B visas tied to the comprehensive immigration reform legislation, is more likely to be fought out among interest groups who feel the brunt of the conditional impact.

About the Authors: Neil Malhotra is Associate Professor of Political Economy, Graduate School of Business at Stanford University. His co-authors for “Economic Explanations for Opposition to Immigration:  Distinguishing Between Prevalence and Conditional Impact” are Yotam Margalit, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Tel Aviv University and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. This article appears in the April 2013 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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