What Southerners want from immigration reform

A naturalization ceremony in North Carolina. A new study finds a majority of Southerners support a path to citizenship for immigrants, although support has slipped among evangelical whites. (Photo: UNC Global)

Immigration reform, already an uphill climb in Congress, likely suffered a setback with the defeat of Republican House Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor in Virginia's primary elections this week.

But a new report by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and the Brookings Institution shows that just as many people in the U.S. support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as did a year ago -- including a majority in Southern states -- if lawmakers can be persuaded to act.

"What Americans Want from Immigration Reform" [PDF] finds that 63 percent of U.S. residents support a "path to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants, nearly identical to the number a year ago.

But there were regional differences: Support is highest in the Northeast, where 67 percent embraced the path to citizenship. In the South, a region with a unique immigration history, a majority still favor it, but support is lower at 58 percent.

The South is also the region where more people are likely to favor deportation as the solution to undocumented immigration. As this chart in The Washington Post based on the report shows, nearly a quarter of Southerners embraced deportation as the answer, with support for deportation much lower in the Northeast and West:


In terms of how Southerners view immigration in general, the Brookings/PRRI report didn't find much of a difference between the South and the rest of the country on questions about whether immigration "threatens traditional American customs and values" (39 percent said yes in the South, 37 percent nationally) or "strengthens American society" (55 percent in the South, 58 percent nationally).


One area where immigration does appear to generate more anxiety for Southerners is jobs. Interestingly, half of Southerners surveyed worried that immigrants "hurt [the labor market] by driving down wages," although that has more to do with "right-to-work" laws and other policies in Southern states that discourage unions and promote low-wage labor.

Support for immigration reform appears to be slipping the most among white followers of evangelical Protestantism, which has the most adherents in the South. As the PRRI/Brookings report notes:

Among white evangelical Protestants, nearly half (48%) also favor allowing immigrants living in the U.S. illegally an opportunity to become citizens provided they meet certain requirements, an 8-point drop from March 2013 when 56% supported a path to citizenship.

The slide in support from white evangelicals is a blow to the efforts of evangelical leaders who have lobbied Congress in support of immigration reform, like the Immigration Evangelical Roundtable.

One factor that seems to influence how white evangelicals view immigration is where they get their news and information: According to the survey, support for immigration reform was nine points lower among those whose most-trusted news source was Fox News.