Social conservatism and attitudes to immigration

A little while ago, I got into a debate with Vipul Naik over the link between social conservatism and open borders. My hypothesis was that social conservatives would oppose open borders because they are defending in-group privilege. Also, being socially conservative correlates with Republican party identification, which correlates with negative views of immigrants. In contrast, Vipul thought that the opposite might be true. Social conservative ideas (e.g., anti-abortion) do not logically entail anti-immigrant views. Immigration attitudes might be decoupled from social attitudes.

Here is what I found out when I used the General Social Survey to explore this issue. First, you have to identify an immigration question. The GSS has a few. The most general is “527. Do you think the number of immigrants from foreign countries who are permitted to come to the United States to live should be increased a lot, increased a little, left the same as it is now, decreased a little, or decreased a lot?” 1 – increased a lot. 5 – Decreased a lot. Roughly speaking, 8% increase, 37% stay the same, 54% decrease immigration.

Ok, let’s crank through some measures of social conservatism:

* Ideology: “66 A. We hear a lot of talk these days about liberals and conservatives. I’m going to show you a seven-point scale on which the political views that people might hold are arranged from extremely liberal–point 1–to extremely conservative– point 7. Where would you place yourself on this scale?” Correlation? .094 – p-value <.001. n=2598.
* Abortion attitudes: “251. Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or never legal under any circumstance?” 1 – Always. 3 – Never. Correlation? .016, not significant. N=1497.
* Gay Rights: “219. What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex–do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?” 1- Always wrong, 4 – not wrong at all. Correlation? -.138, p <.001. N=1702.
* Affirmative action for blacks/women: “153/552. A. Some people say that because of past discrimination, blacks/women should be given preference in hiring and promotion. Others say that such preference in hiring and promotion of blacks is wrong because it discriminates against whites. What about your opinion — are you for or against preferential hiring and promotion of blacks?” 1. strong support to 4 strong oppose. Correlations? .198/.091 . p<.001/p =.07. N= 383 (each).
* Biblical literalism: “120A. Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible? a. The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word. b. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word. c. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” 1 – word of God, 3 – book of fables. Correlation? .071, p=.16. N=383.

Bottom line: Anti-immigration views are always positively correlated with what we’d consider indicators of being socially conservative. In some cases, the correlation is strong, in other cases not significant. However, there are no cases where being conservative is correlated with having pro-immigration views.

Open Borders editorial note: You might also be interested in Nathan Smith’s post Who favors open borders?, that examines World Values Survey (WVS) data comparing attitudes to immigration in 48 countries around the world.

Fabio Rojas is a sociology professor at Indiana University as well as an active blogger. See also:, a group blog to which he contributes
Fabio Rojas’ personal academic webpage
Page about Fabio Rojas on Open Borders: The Case

4 thoughts on “Social conservatism and attitudes to immigration”

  1. I don’t think these results are too surprising. My main conjecture was that the relationship with attitudes to abortion would be practically zero, because there’s no meaningful conceptual connection between attitudes to abortion and attitudes to immigration. On the other hand, explicit ingroup/outgroup-centric measures, such as those related to affirmative action, gays, etc., would be expected to have the sort of correlation that you see. The correlations are still fairly small. The highest seems to be for affirmative actions for blacks — a correlation of about 0.2, which would mean that a grand total of 4% of the variance in immigration attitudes is accounted for by variance in attitudes to affirmative action. This is consistent with the idea that there could be many different reasons to support or oppose affirmative action, and similarly many different reasons to support or oppose immigration, so any correlations we’d find would be fairly modest..

    I had a related non-empirical post here:

    1. I emigrated from Sweden to the US and I don’t think social conservativism per se is linked to an anti-immigration stance. In fact I posit that its more correlated with class and education level.

      In Sweden the anti-democratic parties in Sweden are according to a US perspective liberal, which is comparable to a EU SocialDemocrat. Their voter base is mainly union members (blue collar/white collar) what in the US is called the middle class but in effect is what constitutes the working class.

      If you look at US restrictionists they’re mainly working class whites with no college education. Social conservativism isn’t their common denominator class, union membership and educatio level is.

      In the US “liberals” are college educated whites and working class minorities.

  2. From the Pew Hispanic Center a few years back:

    “Despite the strong pro-immigrant statements issued recently by a number of prominent religious leaders1, polls show that large segments of the public – including many Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals – harbor serious concerns about immigrants and immigration. But among these three groups, those who attend church most frequently tend to be more likely than their less-frequently-attending counterparts to share their religious leaders’ pro-immigrant sentiments. This disparity in perspective often persists even after controlling for socio-economic variables such as income, education, gender, and race.”

    This is tangential, but it does suggest that the story might be a bit more complex than just “social conservatives oppose immigration.” Yes, Republican party identification is associated with restrictionism, but churchgoing is also, I believe, associated with Republican party identification, yet churchgoers are more pro-immigration.

    I would see it this way. A kind of generic “generosity,” in the sense of tolerant and favorable attitudes towards out-groups and practices traditionally considered immoral, is encouraged by education, and positively associated with social liberalism. Thus social liberalism encourages pro-immigration attitudes. At the same time, Christianity promotes its own kind of generosity, which tends to favor immigrants and sympathy for the downtrodden, but definitely does not encourage tolerance for practices like abortion and homosexuality, which it regards as morally wrong. Since there aren’t that many faithful churchgoers in the population, you still see an overall correlation between restrictionism and social conservatism, but it’s weak. At any rate, that’s one attempt to reconcile the numbers.

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