December 3, 2013 4:17PM

Immigrant Attitudes toward Libertarian Values

A recent paper by psychology Professor Hal Pashler of UCSD analyzes General Social Survey (GSS) data and finds that immigrants are less libertarian than the U.S.-born.  This is an interesting paper and professor Pashler notes the many limitations of his findings – mainly that the GSS doesn’t ask many questions that are good barometers of libertarian ideology.  But that hasn’t stopped non-libertarian immigration opponents from using the paper’s conclusion to try and convince libertarians to oppose immigration reform: “With increasing proportions of the US population being foreign-born, low support for libertarian values by foreign-born residents means that the political prospects of libertarian values in the US are likely to diminish over time.” 

Here are some reasons why Pashler’s paper shouldn’t worry libertarians much or convince many to oppose immigration:

First, libertarians generally support immigration reform, the legalization of unauthorized immigrants, and increasing legal immigration because it is consistent with libertarian principles – not because immigration reform will lead to breakthrough electoral gains for libertarian candidates.  The freedom for healthy non-criminals to move across borders with a minimum of government interference is important in and of itself.  General libertarian support for immigration reform does not depend upon immigrants producing a pro-liberty Curley effect – as nice as that would be. 

Second, under free immigration the freedom of current Americans to sell to, hire, and otherwise contract with foreigners would increase substantially.

Third, the ideological differences between the U.S.-born and immigrants are relatively small for some of the questions Pashler analyzes.  For instance, the GSS asked whether the government should do more or less to reduce economic inequality with a response of “1” meaning the government should do much more and a score of “5” meaning the government should do much less.  The average score for immigrants was a 2.75 while the average score for the U.S.-born was 3.18 – a statistically significant difference but hardly one that will push the U.S. toward central planning.

Immigrants also had a more positive view of affirmative action and racial preferences in hiring:





Strongly Oppose



Strongly Support



All Support




Pashler’s findings here are statistically significant but modest. 

Fourth, the ideological differences among Americans of different ages is likely greater than that between an average immigrant and an average U.S.-born American.  Differences in geographic location, gender, sexual orientation, education, race, ethnicity, and other factors are also similar in importance, or bigger than, differences in nativity.

Fifth, these ideological differences disappear in subsequent generations although partisan voting patterns may linger for the descendants of immigrants because of identity politics.  Adjusting political strategies can mitigate this problem.  

Sixth, immigrants are less likely to vote than U.S.-born Americans.  Launching anti-immigrant political campaigns does bring out naturalized immigrants to vote against the party that supports restrictions but, more importantly, shifts immigrants and the ethnic groups of which they are a member against the party using such tactics.  The collapse in Hispanic support for the Republican Party during and after Pete Wilson’s 1994 gubernatorial reelection campaign blamed immigrants for California’s fiscal problems is a case in point.     

Seventh, the Constitution limits the potential political impact of immigrants in several ways that are more humane and less restrictive than stopping the free flow of people.  Immigrants have limited political impact because they and their descendants are heavily geographically concentrated - and remain so for generations.  According to the 2012 American Community Survey, 65 percent of all immigrants are concentrated in six states: California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Illinois.  Because each state elects two senators regardless of population, the political impact of immigration on the federal government is limited because it is so concentrated. 

Another way the Constitution limits the political externalities of immigration is by allowing Congress to create a uniform rule of naturalization per Article 1, Section 8, Clause 4.  Currently, an immigrant needs to be on a green card for five years before he or she can apply for citizenship.  If it turns out there are negative political externalities from immigrants naturalizing and voting then that wait period could be extended to allow for more political and social assimilation before voting.  That is a far more humane and achievable way to limit the potential negative political externalities of immigration while harnessing the economic benefits for both the immigrants and U.S.-born Americans.    

Interestingly, many of the non-libertarian opinions expressed by immigrants in Pashler’s paper are not libertarian but conservative.  Higher immigrant opposition to both marijuana legalization and the publication of anti-U.S. writing by radical Muslims would fit in nicely with some conservative circles.  

The political externalities of immigration are important to consider, but the revelation that immigrants are slightly less libertarian than most Americans is not a convincing argument to further restrict their freedom of movement and the freedom of Americans to associate with whom they want.