Politics is a key influencer in North American immigration views

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Immigration has been one of the casualties of COVID-19.

Individuals and families that had already been authorized to settle in Canada have been told to wait longer, in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

The process of finding a place to live – even for those who arrive with a job offer – is not something that can safely be attempted in the middle of a pandemic.

In any case, the situation is not as dire as the one south of the 49th parallel, where discussions about immigration have focused on the status of the millions of workers who are in the country without documentation.

President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to introduce a bill that would provide a “pathway to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants in the first 100 days of his term.

The views of residents of the two countries on immigration are not always similar. More than half of Canadians (54%) told Research Co. and Glacier Media that immigration is having a “mostly positive” effect in Canada, an eight-point increase since we last visited this issue in January 2019. Only three in 10 Canadians (30%, down six points) say it has been “mostly negative” and 16% are undecided.

In the United States, the issue is significantly more contentious. While 43% of Americans consider that immigration is having a “mostly positive” effect in the country, 36% believe it has been “mostly negative” and 21% are not sure.

Even if the numbers are tighter in the United States, the biggest difference in the way residents of the two countries look at immigration is related to political allegiance. In Canada, 69% of Liberal Party of Canada voters and 58% of New Democratic Party voters believe immigration has been “mostly positive” – compared with only 35% among Conservative Party of Canada voters.

The discrepancy is similar in the United States, with 55% of Democrats espousing the view that immigration has been “mostly positive.” Only 43% of Independents and 34% of Republicans feel the same way.

In Canada, a majority of those who supported the Tories in the last federal election (53%) describe immigration as having a “negative effect.” In the United States, the same proportion of Republicans (53%) also believe immigrants are not benefiting America.

More than two in five Canadians (43%) think the number of immigrants who are allowed to relocate in Canada should remain the same. A third (32%) think the level should decrease, while 17% would prefer to increase it.

The results are not as nuanced in the United States. While 43% of Americans would retain the current level of legal immigration, 24% would increase it and 25% would decrease it.

Once again, centre-right voters are different from all others. We find that 53% of Conservatives in Canada and 39% of Republicans in the United States are willing to reduce legal immigration levels.

The two countries face uniquely different challenges when it comes to policy. In a year that has kept us away from our daily routines, Canadians have become more appreciative of what immigration provides to the country. Three in four (75%) think the hard work and talent of immigrants makes Canada better – a proportion that rises to 81% in British Columbia.

Almost two-thirds of Canadians (65%) believe immigrants should be allowed in Canada only if they adopt Canadian values.

For Americans, the big decision will involve undocumented immigrants who are already in the country. The United States is divided on whether these workers are employed in jobs that Americans do not want (46%) or are taking opportunities away from them (40%).

Just weeks before the 2020 presidential election, almost half of Americans (48%) said they preferred Biden to Donald Trump on immigration. This month, a similar proportion of Americans (49%) agree with the president-elect and say that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the United States and eventually apply for citizenship. Significantly fewer Americans would choose two different routes: temporary work permits (19%) or deportation (23%, including 39% of Republicans).

On the issue of immigration, Canadians have become more appreciative of the contributions of newcomers, while Americans continue to wrestle with decisions related to those who arrived without permits. In both countries, followers of the two centre-right parties are more likely to question the benefits of immigration and call for a reduction. •

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on online studies conducted from December 3 to December 5, 2020, among representative samples of 1,000 adults in Canada and 1,200 adults in the United States. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for Canada and plus or minus 2.8 percentage points for the United States.