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Even New Yorkers Don’t Know Much About Undocumented Immigrants

You might think folks who live in a diverse city like New York would know more about undocumented immigrants than those living elsewhere. But a new study coauthored by Baruch College Professor Sarah Bishop found that “ignorance is pervasive,” even in a “diverse population with direct contact with undocumented immigrants.” The study was published in the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies.

The study surveyed a “cohort of demographically and ideologically diverse” students at Baruch College: 34% Asian, 29% white, 19% Hispanic, 10% black. Politically, 48% were Democrats, 27% undecideds, 7% Republicans, and 13% independents. More than two-thirds were U.S. citizens by birth; more than half said they personally knew an undocumented individual.

Only a third of the participants correctly estimated how many undocumented immigrants live in the U.S. (10 million to 15 million). Most participants also incorrectly assumed that a path to citizenship exists for undocumented immigrants, when in fact it does not. Asked what options are available for undocumented immigrants to become citizens, 16 percent mentioned green cards and 27 percent said marrying a citizen. (In fact, those options can be a gateway for a select few to gain legal permanent residence, but do not confer citizenship.) Twenty-four percent suggested taking a citizenship test, unaware that undocumented immigrants cannot take citizenship tests.

A number of respondents incorrectly seemed to think that all immigrants who lack citizenship are by definition undocumented. In fact, many non-citizen immigrants have legal status to live and work in the U.S.

The study also sought to gauge attitudes toward undocumented immigrants. Those who identified as Democrats, Hispanics, or as immigrants themselves were the least negative. Significantly more negative attitudes were displayed by those who identified as Republican, independent or undecided; those who skewed older among the 19- to 26-year-old participants; and those who guessed wrong on the number of undocumented immigrants.

The study found that those who knew at least one undocumented immigrant had more positive attitudes toward them, suggesting “the potential effectiveness of immigrant rights strategies that introduce undocumented immigrants – either in person or via media – to the voting public.”

One important takeaway from the study: Immigration reform depends on support from people “who hold positive attitudes about immigrants receiving a path to citizenship but do not understand the legal changes necessary to achieve it.” That, the authors said, makes it incumbent upon immigrant rights advocates to “confront this ignorance head on.”

Beyond SUM

Work By

Sarah Bishop (Assistant Professor, Communication Studies) | Profile 1

Colleges and Schools

Baruch College

Bonus Content

"Undocumented Storytellers" (Oxford University Press)