skip navigation
Support KUOW

Northwest Perceptions About Immigration Not Always Based On Facts

Doug Nadvornick

A new public radio survey shows a majority of Northwest residents believes illegal immigrants take away jobs from native–born Americans. Is that perception based on fact? Some experts say, right or wrong, people's beliefs are sometimes driven by their fears about their own economic well–being.


If you want to see the results of America's long open–door policy toward immigration, go to the line in the grocery store. Look around this Spokane Safeway, you see a mixture of ethnicities here.

Pollster Adam Davis says most of the people included in the recent public radio survey think highly of immigrants, even those who are here illegally. The survey is a collaboration of the Northwest Health Foundation, the polling firm Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall, and Northwest public radio stations.

Twelve hundred people from Oregon, Washington and Idaho participated. Davis says 73 percent think undocumented immigrants are good people trying to do the best they can.

Adam Davis: "They're here under tough circumstances. They work hard. But — it's the big but — they feel these people are taking jobs away from legal residents."

Davis says about three in five of those surveyed believe that. They include Barbara Brewster, who lives at Mountain Home Air Force Base in southern Idaho.

Barbara Brewster: "Somebody wants to come here legally, I have no problem with that. But when they're coming here illegally, they're breaking the law. They should go back and come back the right way."

Robert Shapiro says the idea that illegal immigrants steal jobs from Americans is simply incorrect. Robert Shapiro: "That certainly is not what the data show."

Shapiro works at the left–leaning think tank, NDN. He recently reviewed about 20 studies that he says examine links between immigrants and the economy. The consensus among them, he says, is that immigration as a whole has had a net positive effect on the economy.

Robert Shapiro: "The American economy is large enough to absorb huge numbers of immigrants without much effect, frankly. And don't forget that they increase the supply of workers, but they also increase demand because they bring demand with them."

Steven Camarota from the non–partisan Center for Immigration Studies agrees that illegal immigrants don't influence the larger economy much. But he says they do sway smaller pockets of the economy.

Steven Camarota: "Illegal immigration probably has very little impact, if any at all, on the labor market prospects for about 80 percent of American workers. But for the 20 percent at the bottom, it can have a significant impact."

People like teenagers and other low–skilled workers with little education.

Critics of illegal immigration also point to the strain undocumented workers and their families put on local and state government services. Fifty–eight percent of the people in our survey think the children of illegal immigrants should not receive state government benefits. About the same number even say those children should be deported back to their parents' home country. But others in the survey think undocumented workers fill a valuable role in the regional economy. Dianne Childress also lives in Mountain Home, Idaho.

Dianne Childress: "I feel like they're doing the jobs that most Americans won't do, the menial labor and field work."

An overwhelming majority of respondents say they haven't lost a job to an illegal immigrant, haven't hired one, nor have they been the victim of a crime committed by one. In fact, says pollster Adam Davis, many report they have little to no interaction with undocumented residents. But they do have serious uncertainty about the economy — national, state and personal.

Adam Davis: "There's a lot of anxiety around jobs."

And, for now, Davis says that's driving people's opinions about immigration. I'm Doug Nadvornick reporting.

© Copyright 2010, Northwest News Network