The Role of Contact and Values in Public Attitudes Toward Unauthorized Immigrants

Diana M. Orcés & Walter Ewing
Date of Publication: 
April, 2019
Source Organization: 
American Immigration Council

When it comes to understanding public attitudes toward immigrants, policy analyses and news stories frequently rely on public opinion polls that are narrow in scope. Analyses of such polls often focus on whether the public (or certain subgroups of the public) supports more or less immigration and how certain groups of people feel about immigrants. These types of analyses rarely dig deeper into why the respondents feel the way they do; in other words, where those feelings are coming from.

This report and the pilot survey upon which it is based seek to overcome this limitation by analyzing the reasons why people are likely to hold particular attitudes about immigrants. Just as with any other public issue, attitudes about immigrants are wrapped up not only with individuals’ personal characteristics, life experiences, and beliefs about a wide range of other issues, but also some of their personal values and the type of contact that they have with immigrants. 

The primary aim of this analysis was to determine the degree to which contact with immigrants and personal values are associated with views about unauthorized immigrants. The analysis yielded the following principal conclusions: 

  1. Positive contact with immigrants is associated with attitudes toward unauthorized immigrants. The native-born hold more positive views about unauthorized immigrants—or “pro-immigrant sentiments”—if they have friendly interactions with immigrants. The key here is not frequency of contact, but the nature of contact. Negative encounters will not necessarily foster pro-immigrant sentiments. But positive encounters likely will.
  2. The values of empathy and authority are associated with attitudes toward unauthorized immigrants. Native-born individuals who place a high value on empathy hold more pro-immigrant sentiments, while those who highly value authority hold less favorable attitudes.


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Orcés, D. M. & Ewing, W. (2019). The Role of Contact and Values in Public Attitudes Toward Unauthorized Immigrants. American Immigration Council. Retrieved from