Houston Study Reveals Fault Lines of Immigration Debate

Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | September 26, 2016

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America’s direction. Achieving prosperity. Securing America. These are the topics of discussion on the table for the first presidential debate Monday night. Elections often pit potential voters against each other — red versus blue, conservative versus liberal, even “real Americans” versus those who are deemed “unreal” — and this year has proved no different.

Attitudes toward immigration quickly became a dividing line in this year’s campaigns. Republican nominee Donald Trump’s inflammatory comments about immigrants and Mexicans, in particular, helped ignite a surge in Latinos seeking citizenship in order to vote in the November election, according to the New York Times. He’s said he’s committed to deporting millions of people who overstayed their visas or are otherwise undocumented.

Three different counties

In some ways, Houston and its surrounding suburbs provide the perfect laboratory to map some of these divisions. It provides the most diverse metropolitan area in the country, including not only the urban center of Harris County but parts of neighboring Fort Bend County, one of the most diverse counties in the country in its own right. And north of Harris County sits Montgomery County, a predominantly white, suburban county that is very racially and ethnically different from the other two major counties in the area.

While some scholars have theorized that high levels of diversity lead to more open, accepting attitudes towards not only diversity but also immigrants as well, researchers with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research came to a different conclusion. Ethan Raker, a former post-baccalaureate fellow at the Kinder Institute and current graduate student at Harvard University, and Heather O’Connell, a post-doctoral fellow with the Kinder Institute, analyzed several years worth of data for Houston and Harris County, in comparison to Fort Bend County and Montgomery County. They found that attitudes toward immigration were nuanced and depended on the question being asked. By analyzing three different questions, researchers found that the divides were not between more diverse and less diverse areas, as expected, but between suburbs and cities.

Both the city of Houston and its suburbs have grown more accepting of immigrants over time when asked about general admission to the country. Via Heather O'Connell and Ethan Raker.

Both the city of Houston and its suburbs have grown more accepting of immigrants over time when asked about general admission to the country. Via Heather O’Connell and Ethan Raker.

The findings are significant, particularly as suburbs across the country become more diverse. The study suggests that diversity alone is not a guarantee of more welcoming views toward immigrants and that there may be other factors, like socioeconomic status, that play a stronger role in determining attitudes. And it also reveals that though respondents across the board show generally more positive views toward immigration to the United States, more specific questions about resources and economic contributions reveal wide variations beneath that veneer of acceptance.

While Fort Bend County has been dubbed the most diverse county in the country — thanks in large part to the work of the Kinder Institute’s founding director Stephen Klineberg and his annual survey – nearby Montgomery County has a very different profile. While Fort Bend County is roughly 21 percent black, 20 percent Asian, 35 percent white and 24 percent Hispanic; Montgomery County is roughly 70 percent white and 22 percent Hispanic.

But the researchers found that despite their differences, the two counties share similar views toward immigrants and, for example, the idea of a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. Using 23 years of data from the annual Kinder Houston Area Survey, Raker and O’Connell argue that, in the end, the different demographics of the counties “had little influence on the responses toward legalizing ‘illegal’ immigrants.”

Converging views

The researchers looked at responses to the question of whether the country should admit fewer, more or the same level of immigrants over the next 10 years. And they found patterns that are familiar: higher levels of education tended to be consistent with less restrictive attitudes toward immigrants, and Republicans tended to hold more restrictive views than Democrats.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, suburban Harris County was less open to new immigrants at the start of the study period than the city of Houston. But by 2005, “responses to this question no longer differ significantly between the city and the rest of the county.” And in fact suburban residents were becoming more accepting more quickly than city residents, both of whom showed consistently more welcoming attitudes over time.

Thus, the suburbs and the city seem to be converging when it came to attitudes about allowing more immigration.

Dividing lines

But the researchers went a step further, looking at responses to the question: “Do immigrants to the U.S. generally take more from the economy than they contribute, or vice versa?”

When asked whether immigrants contribute more than they take from the economy, the suburbs and city seem to be diverging in their views over time. Via Heather O' Connell and Ethan Raker.

When asked whether immigrants contribute more than they take from the economy, the suburbs and city seem to be diverging in their views over time. Via Heather O’ Connell and Ethan Raker.

“The second question we test gets at the notion of resource scarcity and competition at the local level,” said Raker. This time, the charts look a little different.

“We see again overall Houstonians are increasing in their positive attitudes but that the increase is sharper overall for urbanites. and it’s taking suburbanites a little longer to develop those positive attitudes,” Raker explained. Furthermore, the divide is actually growing. “Whereas in the 90s there was no difference between how suburbanites and urbanites assessed the contributions of immigrants,” said Raker, “there is a real difference now.”

And, as the two very different suburban counties reveal, it isn’t just about the demographics of a given area. The researchers also looked at responses to questions about pathways to legalization for undocumented immigrants.

Despite their differences, Montgomery County and Fort Bend County have grown more similar in their attitudes toward legalization in contrast to the city of Houston. Via Heather O'Connell and Ethan Raker.

Despite their differences, Montgomery County and Fort Bend County have grown more similar in their attitudes toward legalization in contrast to the city of Houston. Via Heather O’Connell and Ethan Raker.

“We were expecting to see that Fort Bend County residents would have more positive attitudes around the legalization of illegal immigrants, versus Montgomery County” explained Raker, given how much more diverse Fort Bend County is compared to Montgomery County. “But we find there’s really no difference given just six years of data.”

Though data was available for suburban Harris County throughout the study period, Fort Bend and Montgomery Counties were only added to the survey more recently, so Raker notes that the findings are very much preliminary. But, he said, “the similarity between the two counties is probably due to the fact that they’re both of high socio-economic status,” when compared to Houston.

“We are a nation of immigrants,” said Raker, “so a lot of people are able to identify with the immigrant but when you ask about resource scarcity or the actual ramifications of immigration, more restrictive attitudes start to come out.”

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Leah Binkovitz

Leah Binkovitz is Senior Editor with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

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