Survey finds sentiment turning anti-immigration Respondents cite economy as factor

June 27, 1993|By New York Times News Service

LOS ANGELES -- With both legal and illegal immigration into the United States approaching historic highs, a public reaction against immigration is also growing, the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll shows.

After decades of heavy immigration that has included large numbers of Hispanic laborers and Southeast Asian refugees, and at a time when many Americans are out of work, a large majority of Americans surveyed said they favored a decrease in immigration. Many cited the economy as a factor in their opinion.

The poll shows that anti-immigrant feelings are also colored by a perception -- which is not supported by the facts -- that most immigrants are in the United States illegally. But the survey also shows that people are much more willing to welcome immigrants when the issue is couched in personal terms.

When asked whether immigration into the United States should be "kept at its present level, increased or decreased," 61 percent of those answering the national telephone survey last week preferred a decrease. That preference is up from a 1986 Times/CBS News poll, when 49 percent favored a decrease.

One of the poll respondents, Dorothy Lepping, 33, a postal worker in Pennsylvania, said her opinions had been shaped by the way she had seen immigrants treated in her hometown. "I saw the amount of aid that went out to them and the way that was abused," she said in a telephone interview after the poll. "I feel that our economy is in a bad state and we should take care of our own."

Such sentiments have grown over the decades. When the Gallup Poll posed the same question in 1977, just 42 percent favored a decrease in immigration; in 1965, when the nation's doors were reopening after four decades of low immigration, just 33 percent called for a decrease.

Shifts in public attitudes seem to parallel the changes in economic conditions. In 1965, the nation's unemployment rate fell to just over 4 percent, compared with the 6.9 percent reported for last May, and the economic growth rate then was 5.6 percent, compared with this year's forecast of 3.1 percent, a prediction that may be scaled back.

According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 8.9 million people have immigrated legally into the United States over the past decade, and an estimated 3 million more have entered the country illegally.

Immigration experts say the numbers approach those of the great wave of European immigration at the turn of the century and are the highest since comprehensive immigration laws were enacted in 1924.

"What people are reacting to now is the reality of the past 20 to 25 years," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a lobbying group that seeks to reduce immigration. "There are unprecedented levels of immigration and the numbers are growing, and the American people are saying, 'Enough is enough.' "

The new poll, which was conducted Monday through Thursday, questioned 1,363 adults nationwide. The poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points. In the new poll, only 32 percent said the country should welcome immigrants who come here with very little to try to make a success of their lives, while 60 percent said this was not practical because of hard conditions in America today.

While only 36 percent of respondents last week and 34 percent in 1986 said they believed that most immigrants "take jobs away from American citizens," 55 percent in the new poll and 52 percent in 1986 said immigrants "mostly take jobs Americans

don't want."

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