Most immigrants are in the U.S. legally, something most Americans don’t know

Most immigrants are in the U.S. legally, something most Americans don’t know

Originally published by The Washington Post

Misinformation about America’s immigrant population is rampant.

Some of it is based on bad data. Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk tweeted a claim on Wednesday that more than a third of the murders in America are committed by immigrants in the country illegally. While it should be obvious to an impartial observer that this claim is questionable, Kirk appears to have calculated it based on data published in an opinion piece at the Hill. That article claimed that a tally of murders by the Government Accountability Office covering a period from 1955 to 2010 among immigrants in the country both legally and illegally was, instead, just homicides by undocumented immigrants from 2005 to 2008. Kirk is a strong supporter of President Trump and vice versa. (Earlier that day, Trump had called him a “spectacular person.”) Kirk’s willingness to present a bit of data that matched Trump’s rhetoric may have made him more likely to accept the flawed numbers from the Hill.

Some of the misinformation, on the other hand, appears to be intentional. Trump’s own repeated insistence that immigrants bring crime has been debunked repeatedly, including by The Post. He said it at the outset of his campaign, and it was debunked, and he kept on saying it. A new poll from Pew Research Center, for what it’s worth, shows that most Americans know that Trump is incorrect. Sixty-five percent of Americans say that immigrants are not more likely to commit serious crimes than native-born Americans, which is true. (Quite the opposite.)

On one immigration-related point, though, Pew showed that Americans aren’t quite clear.

There are about 11 million immigrants in the United States who came here illegally. (If you’re curious how we can be fairly certain about that, here.) In total, nearly 45 million residents of the United States were foreign-born. In other words, about three-quarters of immigrants in the country are here legally.

Most Americans, though, don’t know that. Pew asked respondents whether most immigrants in the United States were here legally or illegally. Only 45 percent said, correctly, that most are here legally. A slightly lower percentage, 42 percent, said illegally.

There are interesting demographic splits. Hispanic respondents, for example, were more likely to say that most immigrants here came illegally. Republicans were more likely to say “illegally” than “legally,” by a 11-point margin. Democrats were much more likely to get the question correct. So were younger Americans.

That may overlap with another interesting demographic break. Older Americans are less likely to be college-educated, and non-college-educated respondents were much more likely to get the response wrong. Most college graduates correctly said that most immigrants are here legally. About half of those without college degrees were incorrect.

Further broken down by party, the results are stark. Most non-college-educated Republicans think that most immigrants are here illegally. Nearly three-quarters of college-educated Democrats think that they are here legally. Republican college graduates were only slightly more likely than Democrats without degrees to get the question correct.

Why did so many people get this wrong? It’s hard to say, and Pew doesn’t speculate. It may be a function of the extent of media coverage of illegal immigration in the overall immigration debate. It’s not clear.

But the repercussions of that erroneous impression seem obvious. If you think that the immigration system is so flawed that most immigrants are here after having violated the law, your perception of how to approach immigration from a policy standpoint may reflect that.

Or it may not. Last week we noted another poll from Gallup. That poll found that immigration is seen as a “good thing” by three-quarters of the country, the highest percentage since they started asking the question in 2001.

When Gallup differentiated the question with “legal” immigration, we’ll note, support jumped even higher.

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