We need to understand the views native-born Americans hold toward immigrants. This is central to building more welcoming communities and toning down our polarization.

Unfortunately, most public opinion polls only reveal Americans’ conflicted views on immigration. There is little understanding about why Americans hold the views they do.

A new report from the American Immigration Council aims to understand the factors associated with Americans’ views of undocumented immigrants in particular. It provides a snapshot of how the frequency and nature of social interaction, as well as certain core values, influence those views.

To get that snapshot, we collected data from 1,280 U.S.-born citizens who volunteered to take a survey on their views. The survey captured their beliefs about immigrants, as well as economic, social, and political topics. It also documented their personal characteristics and experiences.

The main findings from the analysis are:

  • If a person has a friendly encounter with an immigrant, this person holds more favorable views toward undocumented immigrants. The key here is not the frequency of contact, but the nature of contact.
  • How a person values empathy and authority play a distinct part in how they feel about undocumented immigrants.

These findings hold up across a spectrum of identities, including the survey respondents’ race, gender, age, political party, and other factors.

For example, if a Republican places a high value on empathy, this person is likely to show more favorable attitudes toward unauthorized immigrants than a Democrat who places a low value on empathy.

Similarly, when a native-born individual perceives immigrants as changing U.S. culture in a negative way, but places a high value on empathy, he or she is likely to show more positive attitudes toward undocumented immigrants than someone who places a low value on empathy.

If the same individual experiences friendly contact with immigrants, this person will probably express more pro-immigrant views. Even when native-born respondents are concerned with changes in U.S. culture, if they value empathy highly and/or experience friendly contact with immigrants, they will demonstrate more favorable views toward undocumented immigrants.

The findings in the report point to the significant roles that the nature of contact and values play in understanding pro-immigrant attitudes. They also shed light on how immigration advocates could appeal to the native-born. By promoting friendly interactions between immigrants and the native-born, as well as connecting to their personal values, it might be possible to nurture positive attitudes toward immigrants.