Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Local Government Officials, Immigration Attitudes, and Anti-Discriminatory Norms

Saturday, November 14, 2015 : 10:15 AM
President's Room (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Abigail Fisher Williamson, Trinity College
In a context of increasing immigrant dispersion and an on-going stalemate over federal immigration reform, increasing numbers of municipalities are crafting their own responses to immigrants. Media and scholarly attention have focused primarily on restrictive local responses to immigrants. Drawing on fieldwork in new immigrant destinations and responses to a nationwide survey of local government officials, I find that restrictive activities are rare and most localities are engaged in at least some efforts to accommodate immigrants. Why might most localities, across the political spectrum, opt to accommodate immigrants? Elsewhere, I argue that elites have distinct incentives that lead them to be more accommodating toward immigrants than the local public would support. In addition to other important economic and legal incentives, local elites in the public eye may welcome immigrants to combat perceptions of racism or promote a perception of welcoming ethnic diversity. To examine local officials’ sensitivity to diversity and associated anti-discriminatory norms, the aforementioned survey includes an experiment that tests how local government officials respond differently to questions about immigration attitudes in the simulated presence of a non-white research assistant.

The on-line survey, fielded in July 2014-January 2015, surveyed elected and appointed officials across 502 randomly sampled US towns, which were between 5,000 and 200,000 in population and at least 5 percent foreign-born. The survey generated responses from 598 local government officials across 373 US towns, for an overall response rate of 30 percent. At the end of the survey, respondents viewed a thank you message followed by five standard questions on immigration attitudes. Two-thirds of the sample saw the thank you message accompanied by a photo of a research assistant, with half of these respondents seeing the white research assistant and half seeing a digitally altered version of the research assistant in which she appears non-white.  In the sample as a whole, those who saw the “non-white” research assistant were directionally more supportive of immigration, though results were only statistically significant for one of six dependent variables. Viewing the non-white assistant, however, had differential impacts depending on the local government official’s political ideology.  Among those who are moderate or liberal, seeing the non-white assistant induced a statistically significant differential increase in support for immigration. Further analysis remains necessary to determine why non-conservative local government officials respond more favorably to questions about immigration in the “presence” of a person of color, whether due to an internalized embrace of diversity or a heightened sensitivity to anti-discriminatory norms.