Like with so many other issues, Americans are deeply divided along partisan lines when it comes to immigration. But views on the subject are divided just as much, and sometimes more, than by political party along a different attribute: age.
Recent YouGov polling finds a vast generational divide when it comes to how Americans feel about the past, present, and future state of immigration in the U.S. Compared to older Americans, younger adults are more supportive of increasing legal immigration to the U.S. and of providing a pathway to citizenship for people here illegally. They are also more likely to know someone who is in the U.S. illegally and to have personally had family members immigrate to the country over the past century.
How important is the issue of immigration to American citizens?
More than three-quarters of Americans (77%) say legal immigration is an important issue to them (41% say very important, 36% say somewhat important), while 23% say it’s not very important or unimportant. Almost as many (71%) say the issue of illegal immigration is very or somewhat important to them. However, these two groups – people who say legal or illegal immigration are important to them – don’t necessarily overlap: 40% of people who say illegal immigration is not very or at all important to them also say legal immigration is somewhat or very important to them.
Older generations of Americans are far more concerned with the issue of immigration than younger Americans are: 61% of people who are 65 and older say legal immigration is a very important issue to them, and the same proportion say the same about illegal immigration. By contrast, just 36% of adults under 65 say each issue is very important to them.
Do Americans think the U.S. should increase or decrease the number of legal immigrants admitted?
Americans are more likely to say they’d like the federal government to increase legal immigration levels (27%) or not change them (32%) than to decrease them (23%).
As an experiment, we gave half of respondents information on the average number of people who are admitted to the U.S. as immigrants each year (around 1 million) before we asked whether they thought levels should change; the other half of respondents were not shown this information before being asked the question.
Overall, whether this information was provided had little effect on opinions. The experiment did, however, have a significant impact on the opinions of adults under 30, who were 15 percentage points more likely to say legal-immigration levels should be increased if they were first told the number of immigrants admitted than if they were not. The effect on people who are 65 or older was smaller and in different directions: Compared to those not shown the 1 million figure, those shown it were less likely to say legal-immigration levels should increase or decrease, and more likely to say it should stay the same.
Which groups of immigrants do Americans think the U.S. should prioritize?
Of the overlapping groups of possible immigrants asked about, Americans are most likely to say the U.S. should prioritize people who are escaping areas devastated by war, followed by people who have a close family member who is already a citizen. A person’s economic standing, in terms of their ability to start a new business and employ others, is less relevant to whether Americans think they should be prioritized in the U.S. immigration system. The share who say each group should be given higher priority, when given the chance to select as many as apply, is as follows:
- 70% say people who are trying to escape from areas devastated by war
- 63% say people who have a close family member who is already a citizen
- 55% say people who have a close family member already living in the country
- 53% say people who already speak English
- 50% say people who are escaping from areas with poor economies
- 49% say people who have enough money to start a new business when they arrive
- 46% say people who have enough money to employ other people when they arrive
There is a large gap in the way younger and older Americans feel about prioritizing prospective immigrants who are trying to escape areas with poor economies: While 70% of U.S. adults under 30 say these people should be prioritized, just 42% of Americans 45 and older agree.
When businesses face labor shortages, should they raise wages to recruit Americans, or recruit immigrant workers to keep costs down?
When asked what businesses facing labor shortages should do, half of Americans (50%) say the businesses should raise wages and try harder to recruit Americans, even if doing so causes prices to rise. Far fewer – 22% – say the businesses should recruit immigrant workers to help keep prices down.
While Americans age 30 and older are far more likely to favor businesses recruiting Americans, adults under 30 are more divided: 36% say businesses should raise costs to recruit Americans, while 29% say they should recruit immigrants to keep prices down.
How big of a problem is illegal immigration in the U.S.?
Most people say illegal immigration is a very (40%) or somewhat (23%) serious problem in the U.S. as a whole, while 28% say it’s not a problem or only a minor problem. Far fewer say illegal immigration is a problem in their local community: 13% say it’s a very serious problem and 20% say it’s somewhat serious. Nearly half (48%) say it’s a minor problem or not a problem.
American adults who are 65 and older are more than three times as likely as those under 30 to say that illegal immigration is a very serious problem in the U.S.
How many American citizens personally know someone who is living in the U.S. illegally?
One in four American citizens (24%) say they personally know someone who is living in the U.S. illegally.
Only 14% of Americans who are 65 and older say they personally know someone who is in the U.S. illegally – half as many as the share of adults under 45 who say they do (30%).
Do Americans think that immigrants living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship, or be required to leave?
Half of Americans (50%) believe illegal immigrants living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay in the U.S., including 40% who say that illegal immigrants should eventually be allowed to apply for citizenship and 10% who say they should be allowed to stay but not become citizens. One-third of people (34%) say illegal immigrants should be required to leave the U.S.
While half of Americans 65 and older (53%) say that illegal immigrants should be required to leave the U.S., younger groups tend to support allowing them to stay: Only 12% of American adults under 30 believe immigrants should be required to leave, compared to half (49%) who say they should be allowed to stay and eventually apply for citizenship.
Do Americans think migrants being detained at the U.S.-Mexico border are being treated humanely or inhumanely by U.S. officials?
Americans are split on whether immigrants being detained near the U.S.-Mexico border are being treated humanely or inhumanely by U.S. officials: 38% say they’re being treated humanely, while 34% say they’re being treated inhumanely and 28% are unsure.
Only one in four American adults under 30 (23%) believe immigrants are being treated humanely at the border, while about half (54%) believe they’re being treated inhumanely. Americans 65 and older hold vastly different views: 61% believe immigrants detained at the border are being treated humanely, while only 17% believe they’re being treated inhumanely.
Do Americans think Biden has been too hard or not hard enough on the issue of illegal immigration?
In terms of Biden’s policies on illegal immigration, more Americans say they are not hard enough (41%) than say they are about right (22%) or too hard (10%).
Here, too, we see major differences between the attitudes of younger and older generations. Only 19% of adults under 30 believe Biden has been not hard enough on illegal immigration, compared to 68% of people 65 and older.
How many Americans have had family members immigrate to the U.S. in the past century?
Slightly under half of Americans (45%) say they’ve had at least one family member migrate to the U.S. in the last 100 years, including 14% who say many or all of their family members migrated and 31% who say one or a few did. Fewer people – 41% – say none of their family members immigrated to the U.S. over the past century. About one in four people (27%) are unsure.
Younger generations of Americans are more likely than older Americans to say they’ve had a family member immigrate to the U.S. in the past century. While three in five Americans 65 and older (62%) say that none of their family members have migrated in the past 100 years, only one in five Americans under 30 say this (21%). That may partially be a result of the people included in the survey: All are citizens, and older citizens are more likely to have been living in the U.S. for longer — and have families living in the U.S. longer — than younger citizens.
Additional findings from our recent poll on immigration:
- Overall, Americans are more likely to say that immigration has made the U.S. better off (42%) than to say it has made it worse off (25%) or hasn’t made much of a difference (16%).
- Americans are more likely to agree (45%) than disagree (19%) with the claim that immigrants generally work harder than people born in the U.S.
- When it comes to people who entered the U.S. illegally as minors, Americans are largely supportive of providing an eventual path to citizenship: 63% say a person who came here as a 5-year-old should be given a path to citizenship and 55% say this for someone who arrived as a teenager. Only 16% say a person who came here illegally at age 5 should be required to leave, and 21% say a person who came here as a teenager should have to leave.
- About half of Americans (53%) believe that illegal immigrants take jobs that Americans don’t want, while only one in four (25%) believe they take jobs that are wanted by Americans.
- In terms of whether to grant certain rights to immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, Americans are somewhat divided. About as many support (45%) as oppose (43%) allowing illegal immigrants to have driver's licenses. Support is weaker on other possible rights, including:
- Allowing illegal immigrants to have a Social Security card (35% support, 53% oppose)
- Allowing them to be eligible for government benefits (25% support, 58% oppose)
- Allowing them to vote in:
- School-board elections (24% support, 62% oppose)
- Local elections (23% support, 63% oppose)
- State and national elections (19% support, 67% oppose)
- If a large number of illegal immigrants are caught and detained at the border, do Americans see this as a sign that U.S. immigration policy is working as intended, or as a sign that it is failing? On this question, Americans are evenly divided: 36% say this is a sign that immigration policy is working as intended and 36% see it as a sign that policy is failing.
- Only one in five Americans (22%) say they’ve heard “a lot” about the Biden administration’s decision to end border restrictions enacted during the pandemic, known as Title 42; 45% say they’ve heard a little about this decision and 33% say they’ve heard nothing about it. Among Americans who have heard about Title 42 restrictions, more oppose (46%) than support (27%) removing them.
- About one in 10 Americans (9%) say they’ve hired someone who they thought might be in the U.S. illegally for a permanent or temporary role (including housekeepers, landscapers, and caregivers).
- Do Americans know how long the process of obtaining a green card takes? In one question, we asked people to estimate how long it would take for a Mexican sibling of a U.S. citizen to have their green-card application approved. Among people who provided a response, 60% thought it would take one year or less, 78% thought it would take three years or less, and 94% thought it would take seven years or less. In reality, some sources estimate it takes around 14 to 16 years to process a visa for siblings of U.S. citizens, though for siblings coming from Mexico it’s estimated to take even longer – at least 20 years. When asked how long they think it should take to process a sibling green card, two-thirds of Americans said it should take one year or less.
— Carl Bialik and Linley Sanders contributed to this article
This poll was conducted on July 20 - 22, 2022 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.
Image: Mario Tama / Getty