An insurance salesman in rural Louisiana worries that immigration will sink the United States further into debt. In the Ohio countryside, a father of five says immigrants lower wages. But in New Orleans, a lifelong urbanite credits immigrants with rebuilding her hurricane-scarred neighborhood.
A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey of nearly 1,700 Americans — including more than 1,000 in rural areas — reveals that attitudes toward immigrants form one of the widest gulfs between U.S. cities and rural communities.
Rural residents are more likely than people in cities or suburbs to think that immigrants are not adapting to the American way of life. The poll also finds that these views soften in rural areas with significant foreign-born populations.
“I think it’s just people not getting out there and knowing their neighbors,” said Adam Lueck, who lives in a rural part of Minnesota and thinks immigrants strengthen America.
President Trump won the November election with broad support from rural America, and his aggressive stance against illegal immigration resonated strongly there. In the Post-Kaiser poll, rural residents are almost three times as likely as city dwellers to consider immigrants a burden to the United States — 42 percent vs. 16 percent.
Rural residents are also more likely to say that recent immigrants have different values than their own — 50 percent, compared with 39 percent of urban residents.
Trump voters in rural areas are the most critical: 74 percent say recent immigrants are not doing enough to assimilate to life in America vs. 49 percent of rural Americans overall who think that, as well.
Differences, in black and white: Rural Americans’ views often set apart by race
One reason for rural Americans’ concern about immigrants could be their lack of exposure to them. Foreign-born residents make up 2.3 percent of the population in rural counties, compared with nearly 15 percent of urban counties, according to Census Bureau data for 2011-2015.
Rural residents “have not had a long experience with immigrants,” said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. “They haven’t had a chance to get used to it. Maybe their economic situation isn’t very good, and they hear politicians saying it’s all about immigrants coming in and taking jobs.”
Immigrants tend to concentrate in cities where jobs are more plentiful, though smaller groups have also gravitated toward rural farming towns with crops and meatpacking plants that depend on migrant labor.
The Post-Kaiser poll finds that in rural areas where less than 2 percent of the population are immigrants, less than 4 in 10 residents say immigrants strengthen the country. But that rises to nearly 6 in 10 in rural areas where at least 5 percent are born outside the United States.
“Knowing an immigrant is actually associated with more positive attitudes about immigrants,” said Mark Hugo Lopez, director of global migration and demography for the Pew Research Center. “Not 100 percent that they’re great. But more of a connection and a feeling that immigrants are not necessarily a problem for the economy.”
That is certainly the case for Kathleen Kanost, a 64-year-old disabled woman in New Orleans who grew up in Washington, D.C., and moved to Louisiana in 1978. A former waitress, she said she frequently worked alongside immigrants from the Middle East and Latin America.
“They’re hard-working people, the ones I’ve known all my life,” she said. “They seem to stick together and help each other out.”
David Woods, a 36-year-old father of five, has a different view. Raised on his family farm near Lake Erie in Ohio, he loved the predawn quiet, the fresh air and the landscape of green clover. He hoped to continue to work on farms after his family sold theirs.
But soon he felt pushed out. Nobody at the dairy farm where he had a job spoke English. he said. And the immigrant workers were more willing to work for low pay.
In 2005, Woods left for a masonry company. He now earns double what he made on the farm, pouring concrete sidewalks, driveways, and stairs. He said he’s frustrated by his belief that immigrants who are in this country illegally do not pay their fair share of taxes. Federal data shows that millions of undocumented immigrants file tax returns each year.
“A lot of people, when I start on my rants about it, they say I’m racist. I’m not racist,” Woods said. “I feel like if you’re going to live in the United States like the rest of the U.S., you’re going to have to pay taxes like the rest of us.”
A National Academy of Sciences report released last September found that immigration overall had a positive impact on economic growth in the United States. But the effect was uneven: Americans and prior immigrants who did not finish high school had lower wages because of competition for jobs.
That study also found that first-generation immigrants contributed less in taxes per capita, because in general they were less educated and earned lower wages. But that trend reversed for immigrants’ children, who had higher educational achievement, better salaries and, as a result, paid more in taxes than other native-born Americans.
The United States is home to more than 41 million immigrants. An estimated 11 million are here illegally.
Rural residents are more worried than their urban counterparts about job shortages in their communities. And most, 63 percent, say cracking down on immigrants working illegally is important in addressing that issue.
“If you do it right, I don’t have problem with it,” William Cooper, 64, who runs an insurance agency in rural Richland Parish, La., said of immigration. “But if you don’t do it right, you can hit the road.”
Cooper said the United States is drowning in debt and should only welcome immigrants the nation can afford. “Can’t everybody in the world live in America,” he said. “We’re putting ourselves into the poorhouse.”
But Lueck, a 32-year-old truck driver and gun enthusiast from Blue Earth County in Minnesota, disagreed — even as he acknowledged that his views make him an anomaly in his community. He said Mexican immigrants and others are adjusting just fine, as have generations of immigrants before them.
“I don’t think our cultural fabric should be laid down in a tradition that needs to be enforced,” Lueck said. “We light off fireworks on the Fourth of July, and that’s for everybody.”
He said he has met immigrants from all over the world, including Mexico, Sudan and Somalia, and none felt entitled to U.S. government benefits or freebies. Rather than deporting immigrants, Lueck said, he would like the government to focus on requiring businesses to hire workers who are here legally.
“They want to work for everything they get, too,” he said. “That’s what they came here for.”
This Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll was conducted April 13-May 1 with a random national sample of 1,686 U.S. adults contacted on landline and cell phones with an overall margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. The sample of 1,070 rural Americans has an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 points; the error margin is 7 points among the samples of 303 urban residents and 6.5 points among 307 suburban residents.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.