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Immigration and the American Ethos, Morris Levy and Matthew Wright

Reviewed by Viviana Rivera-Burgos


Ambivalent, complex, idiosyncratic, divergent, moderate, uncertain, and perplexing are just some of the words that Morris Levy and Matthew Wright use to describe Americans’ attitudes toward immigrants and immigration policy. The fact that many Americans prefer fewer immigrants and more enforcement of immigration law, while simultaneously supporting a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, is a case in point. In Immigration and the American Ethos, Levy and Wright offer a compelling answer to this puzzle: a set of values that are deeply ingrained in American political culture can explain the inconsistency in public opinion about immigration much better than the leading scholarly perspectives on the topic.

The most prominent among the latter—the group-centrist explanation—holds that individuals will support policies that favor their in-group (groups they feel attached to) or that harm their out-group (groups they feel threatened by). The important role of prejudice in American public opinion notwithstanding, these theories overstate the influence of racial identity on attitudes toward immigration. Rather than racial identity, civic fairness—“a set of normative beliefs about what current and aspiring members owe their political communities and what these communities owe them in return” (p. 9)—shapes opinions about different immigration policies. The norms that make up the civic fairness framework and influence citizens’ opinions about immigration include functional assimilation (beliefs in economic individualism and self-reliance), formal assimilation (adherence to formal legalism), egalitarianism (belief in equality of opportunity), and humanitarianism (belief in obligation to help others).

Levy and Wright make it clear that group-centrism and civic fairness are not mutually exclusive, and in fact, they are often intertwined. For one, norms “are seldom ‘identity free’” (p. 15). However, using a wide array of survey evidence—consisting of both national polls and original survey experiments—the authors demonstrate that in cases in which civic fairness and group-centrism collide, most Americans’ opinions about immigration policies reflect their values more than their racial attitudes. The overpowering effect of political values is attributable, at least in part, to the provision of counter-stereotypic information. Priming functional assimilation and humanitarianism, to use an example from Chapter 3, reduces support for restricting legal admissions, even in the presence of group cues and knowledge that supporting this particular policy would increase overall immigration levels.

In the four empirical chapters of the book, Levy and Wright convincingly argue that civic fairness explains Americans’ seemingly contradictory views on the number of immigrants entering the country (“abstract restrictivism” versus “operational openness”); why people’s opinions about legal and illegal immigration often diverge; why anti-Latino bias emerges in some experimental studies of immigration attitudes but not in others; and the extent to which national identity (as opposed to racial identity) shapes opinions about immigration.

Save for a brief subsection in the fifth chapter, the role of partisanship is notably absent from this account of immigration attitudes, an omission that the authors recognize. They argue that the strong impact of partisanship on public opinion is already well documented and that, as a social identity with explanatory power, it takes a backseat to racial and national identity in the literature on immigration. Nevertheless, it is not inconceivable that partisanship may play a key role in the civic fairness framework by influencing how people weigh considerations of both racial identity and political values when forming opinions about immigration.

Finally, the authors introduce the book as an examination of “the relative influence of political values and group-centrism in American mass politics using an extended case study of contemporary public opinion about immigration” (p. xvii). This raises the question, can the civic fairness framework explain variation in opinions about other policy types?

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