Computational analysis of 140 years of US political speeches reveals more positive but increasingly polarized framing of immigration | Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Really interesting analysis on the shifts over time, both general and partisan, along with group specific attitudes. A comparable Canadian study would likely show some historical parallels, with less political polarization than in the USA, with a focus on different groups (e.g., contrasting Mexican and Chinese immigration makes sense for the USA while for Canada early attitudes towards Chinese immigration paralleled USA attitudes, a better comparator for later attitudes would be Middle Eastern immigrants):
Immigration is one of the most important and divisive topics in American public life. From the rise of vocal antiimmigrant politicians in recent years, it is tempting to conclude that attitudes toward immigration are more negative—or at least more polarized—than ever before. However, resistance to newcomers has always been a central part of our public discourse about immigration. From anti-Chinese fearmongering in the 1880s to concerns about Southern and Eastern European immigrants in the 1920s to the antiimmigration rhetoric of the Trump administration (2017 to 2020), claims that certain types of immigrants can never truly join American society have been a perennial part of our discourse. For example, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, an architect of antiimmigrant legislation, declared a century ago, “[Immigration] is bringing to the country people whom it is very difficult to assimilate” (1, p. 35) because immigrants are from “races most alien to the body of the American people” (1, p. 32).
We seek to move beyond individual anecdotes to ask, how have attitudes toward immigrants in the United States changed over the past century? How does recent political debate over immigration compare to the long sweep of US history? This question is a challenge because public opinion polls that asked about attitudes toward immigration only began in the 1960s and were then only asked about immigration sporadically until recent years. We instead turn to the Congressional Record and other sources of political speech, using quantitative text analysis methods to systematically investigate the language used in congressional and presidential speeches about immigration over the past 140 y.
Our paper considers the full corpus of more than 17 million congressional speeches from 1880 to the present, of which we identify ∼200,000 speeches relevant to the topic of immigration. We also incorporate presidential communications from the same time period, making this a comprehensive quantitative analysis of American political speech about immigration at the federal level, covering the entire time period from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the present day.
Numerous studies have analyzed the political history of US immigration using qualitative approaches and historical archives (27); quantitative work on immigration has also used data such as migration and census records (8, 9). Rhetorical aspects of immigration debates have been studied qualitatively—especially the use of dehumanizing language and metaphors such as “vermin” and “cargo” (1013)—but these authors have not rigorously quantified how common such language is over time. Last, other scholars have applied computational methods from natural language processing to study coverage of immigration in news media and Congress (1418), but none have used these tools to investigate such a long time span or comprehensive corpus of speeches about US immigration with a consistent methodology.
Our analysis is based on a combination of methods. To identify relevant speeches, along with a corresponding tone (proimmigration, antiimmigration, or neutral), we make use of automated text classification based on extensive human annotations. Using a semiautomated process, we also curate and apply a set of lexicons for analyzing relevant frames (i.e., ways of characterizing immigrants and immigration). Finally, to quantify implicit dehumanizing metaphors in speeches, we develop an approach using neural contextual embedding models to measure if references to immigrants are suggestive of various metaphorical categories (Materials and Methods).
We find that political speeches about immigration today are far more likely to be positive than in the past, with the shift from negative to positive mostly taking place between World War II (WWII) and the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, and being net positive on average in nearly all sessions of Congress since the early 1950s. Extending this analysis to presidential communications, we find President Trump to be a stark exception, as the first president in modern American history to express sentiment toward immigration that is more negative than the average member of his own party. As with many political issues, the two parties have become increasingly polarized over time, and we find a linear increase in polarization on immigration, beginning in the late 1970s under President Carter. Today, Democrats are unprecedentedly positive about immigration, whereas Republicans are as negative as the average legislator was in the 1920s during the push for strict immigration quotas. This divergence is clearly part of a broader trend toward polarization on many issues (Discussion); for immigration specifically, our analysis reveals the beginnings of this, predating the rise in generic political polarization observed in Gentzkow et al. (19) by more than a decade.
Along with the polarization by party, nationality of immigrants continues to matter greatly, with speeches mentioning Mexican immigration being consistently more negative than the average (dramatically so in comparison to European groups). Moreover, there is a striking similarity between how Mexican immigrants are framed today and how Chinese immigrants were framed during the period of Chinese exclusion in the 19th century: more negative in tone; greater explicit emphasis on frames such as “crime,” “labor,” and “legality”; and significantly greater use of implicit dehumanizing metaphors, in comparison to European groups.
Thus, while far more members of Congress today express favorable attitudes toward immigration than in the past, there remains a strong and growing strain of antiimmigration speech, especially among Republicans, along with perennial references to threats, legality, and crime. Despite the elimination of country-specific immigration quotas in the 1960s, expressed opinions toward immigrants still vary greatly by country of origin, and enduring rhetorical strategies continue to be deployed against more marginalized groups.


Tone of Immigration Speeches.

Starting with the complete record of 17 million congressional speeches from 1880 to 2020 (Data), we collected human annotations and trained machine learning classifiers to identify speeches relevant to immigration, along with an accompanying tone (proimmigration, antiimmigration, or neutral; Classification). Both panels of Fig. 1 show the average tone (percent proimmigration minus percent antiimmigration) expressed in congressional speeches over this time period (black line).* The trends for congressional speeches by Democrats and Republicans are also shown in Fig. 1, Top. A comparable time series for presidents is shown in Fig. 1, Bottom, by applying the same models to all presidential communications collected by the American Presidency Project (20). For alternative models, validity checks, and variation within parties, refer to SI Appendix.
Fig. 1.
Evolution of attitudes toward immigration expressed in congressional speeches and presidential communications. Average tone is computed as the percentage of proimmigration speeches minus the percentage of antiimmigration speeches, where proimmigration means valuing immigrants and favoring less restricted immigration and vice versa. Top and Bottom show the overall tone using all congressional speeches about immigration (black dashed line, with bands showing plus or minus two SDs based on the estimated proportions and number of speeches). Top also shows separate plots for speeches by Democrats and Republicans in Congress. (Due to limitations of the data, about 15% of speeches do not have a named speaker or party affiliation.) Bottom shows the corresponding estimates for each president, showing the overall average for a president’s tenure when there are insufficient data to show annual variation. Note that most modern presidents have been more favorable toward immigration than the average member of Congress. By contrast, Donald Trump appears to be the most antiimmigration president in nearly a century. Similarly, congressional Republicans over the past decade have framed immigration approximately as negatively as the average member of Congress did a century earlier.
We begin by documenting a number of findings about political speech related to immigration. First, average sentiment toward immigration in Congress and the executive branch is negative throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) through the advent of strict immigration quotas in the 1920s. The pervasiveness of negative sentiment can help make sense of the political context that gave rise to a suite of increasingly restrictive immigration regulations. It is particularly noteworthy that we do not find a rise in negative speeches leading up to the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. Rather, we find that political sentiment in Congress was staunchly antiimmigration for more than 4 decades, which is consistent with the political history that has recounted the many congressional attempts to pass antiimmigration legislation, all of which were struck down by the president, in the years before the successful passage of quotas (21). Second, attitudes toward immigration became more positive around the start of WWII, rising steadily from 1940 until the end of the Johnson administration (1969). The average tone in Congress has essentially been proimmigration since the beginning of the Eisenhower administration (1953), consistent with efforts by postwar presidents to reframe the public understanding of immigration as positive for the country.
Third, beginning about a decade after the reopening of the border with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, there has been a growing partisan divide, larger year-to-year variations, and an overall decline in sentiment toward immigration among Republicans. Democrats, by contrast, have grown more positive about immigration over time, especially under Presidents Obama and Trump, with the exception of a temporary bipartisan drop in proimmigration speeches in the early 1990s, coinciding with the end of the Cold War and the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). By contrast, Republican legislators are now approximately as overtly antiimmigration in their speeches as the average legislator was during the Age of Mass Migration from Europe and the 1920s quota periods.
The trends for presidential attitudes toward immigration should be treated more cautiously as there is less text available from presidents overall and because these estimates involve a slight domain shift (from congressional speeches, on which our models were trained, to more varied types of presidential communications). Nevertheless, we document a similar pattern, whereby early presidents were more antiimmigration than modern presidents. In recent years, presidents have been uniformly more proimmigration than the average member of Congress, including both Republicans like Ronald Reagan and Democrats like Jimmy Carter. In historical comparison, President Trump was a stark exception: by his utterances, he was the most antiimmigration president to sit in office over the past 140 y, relative to the average attitude of the time expressed in Congress.
Although the difference in tone between the parties today is larger than at any point in the past, tone also varies dramatically depending on which groups of immigrants are being discussed. Fig. 2 shows the average tone when considering only those speeches that mention each of the three most commonly mentioned nationalities in immigration speeches—Mexican, Chinese, and Italian (Identifying Groups).
Fig. 2.
Average tone of immigration speeches when considering only those speeches that mention the country or nationality for each of the three most frequently mentioned nationalities (Top) and the percent of the US foreign-born population from each of these countries over time (Bottom). Despite the midcentury increase in proimmigration attitudes applying to all groups, a gap in tone by group persists to the present day, with Mexican immigrants being consistently framed more negatively than others and Italian immigrants being framed especially positively. These trends are mirrored in broader regional patterns for Europe, Asia, and Latin American and the Caribbean (SI Appendix).

Source: Computational analysis of 140 years of US political speeches reveals more positive but increasingly polarized framing of immigration | Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Germans less skeptical of immigration

Significant shift with respect to skilled immigrants, concerns re refugees (similar pattern in Canada):

Christian Osterhaus knows only too well what the term Willkommenskultur (“welcome culture”) means: When hundreds of thousands of people seeking protection arrived in Germany in 2015, he was one of the first to co-found a local refugee aid organization.

“We didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past,” he tells DW. By welcoming the refugees, he and his team wanted to show “that we don’t exclude people again.” With around 30 fellow campaigners, Osterhaus got involved in Bonn in the fall of 2015. The group cared for 40 to 50 refugees, most of whom came from Syria.

Osterhaus was one of hundreds of thousands of people in Germany who set out to help those fleeing civil war in Syria and other countries, and to help integrate them into German society. “We wanted to give these people a new home,” Osterhaus says looking back.

The special effort at integration became known as Germany’s welcome culture. But in 2015 and 2016, many people also had little understanding for this attitude. They did not want to take in refugees and migrants. The xenophobic protest movement gave rise to the far-right populist Alternative for Germany party (AfD).

More people see benefits of migration

In its representative study “Willkommenskultur zwischen Stabilität und Aufbruch,” (Welcome Culture Between Stability and Departure) the nonprofit Bertelsmann Foundation has now taken a closer look at changes in Germans’ attitudes and identified a trend: Germans are more optimistic about migration and immigration than they were a few years ago.

“In essence, our survey shows that skepticism toward immigration is still widespread in Germany, but it has continually declined in recent years,” says Ulrike Wieland, co-author of the study: “More people now see the potential benefits of migration; especially for the economy. When it comes to perceptions of integration, we find that more respondents than in previous years see inequality of opportunity and discrimination as significant obstacles hampering integration of individuals.”

The Bertelsmann Foundation has been conducting representative surveys since 2012. In the beginning, the researchers set out to determine how Germans felt about the immigration of skilled workers. But in response to the influx of large numbers of refugees in 2015-2016, researchers wanted to gauge attitudes towards these people.

As to long-term effects of immigration, positive and negative assessments roughly balance each other out. But the debate on refugees has somewhat tipped the scales.

Today, many see immigration as a way to help solve Germany’s demographic and economic problems. For example, two out of three respondents see immigration as helping to balance out an aging society, more than half of those polled said it could also compensate for the ongoing shortage of skilled workers, and half of all respondents expect immigrants to generate additional revenue for Germany’s pension fund.

But many respondents remain skeptical: 67% say that immigrants place an additional burden on the welfare state, 66% say they worry about conflicts erupting between people born and raised in Germany and immigrants, and many respondents fear that schools are facing major problems integrating immigrant students.

But there is an important differentiation to make: skilled immigrants seeking employment or academic opportunities are more accepted (71%) than refugees who are primarily seeking protection (59 %).

More than a third don’t want more refugees

The Bertelsmann Foundation study also clearly shows that there is still a lot of skepticism in Germany when it comes to refugees.

Christian Osterhaus notes that many helpers have turned away because of the decrease in acceptance for their work for refugees. “In the beginning we were part of a social movement and felt supported, but for several years we have been working against the social mainstream,” is how Osterhaus describes it to DW.

Germans have overall become more accepting of refugees. But over one-third of respondents (36%) believe that Germany cannot take in any more of them. In 2017, that number stood at 54%. Currently, 20% consider the refugees to be “temporary guests” who do not need to be integrated into society.

“We see that one-fifth of the population is skeptical of refugees or outright rejects them. These people seem to have a worldview that supports the idea of a (far-reaching) social closure against migration,” explains co-author Ulrike Wieland.

Germany should see itself as an immigration society,’ says the study’s co-author, Ulrike Wieland

People with an immigrant background are underrepresented in politics, corporate management and the media in Germany. Respondents see German language skills as a pivotal prerequisite to integration. But many of them also believe that legislation needs to be changed to combat existing inequality when it comes to finding housing, dealing with authorities or schools.

The new coalition government of center-left Social Democrats (SPD), environmentalist Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) has already made clear it wants to focus more on integration. For example, they are planning to ensure that even rejected asylum seekers are given the opportunity to stay in Germany permanently if they have learned German and have found work to earn a sufficient income. Family reunification is to be extended to all refugees and it is to become easier to obtain German nationality.

That is basically the right way to go, says researcher Ulrike Wieland: “But it is also important for Germany to develop a positive self-image as an immigration society. To achieve this, politicians and civil society must work together. They must actively shape a diverse society.”

Aid worker Christian Osterhaus looks back at when he started working with refugees: “At the time, I really had the impression that German society had opened up and changed and had actually learned a lot.” He believes that interpersonal connections and friendships are the foundation for the path to building a real welcome culture in Germany.

Source: Germans less skeptical of immigration

Ethnic and immigrant Chinese have range of feelings toward Beijing Olympics

Not that surprising to find a diversity of views:

Shuyu Kong recalls being a new Asian studies professor at a Canadian university when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics in 2008.

Now, in 2022, with many years of seeing students explore their identity and a sense of belonging, the Simon Fraser University academic is once again thinking about the feelings of those with ethnic, heritage or immigrant ties to China as the Winter Olympics unfold in Beijing.

Source: Ethnic and immigrant Chinese have range of feelings toward Beijing Olympics

Misattributed blame? Attitudes toward globalization in the age of automation

Interesting study and findings:

Many, especially low-skilled workers, blame globalization for their economic woes. Robots and machines, which have led to job market polarization, rising income inequality, and labor displacement, are often viewed much more forgivingly. This paper argues that citizens have a tendency to misattribute blame for economic dislocations toward immigrants and workers abroad, while discounting the effects of technology. Using the 2016 American National Elections Studies, a nationally representative survey, I show that workers facing higher risks of automation are more likely to oppose free trade agreements and favor immigration restrictions, even controlling for standard explanations for these attitudes. Although pocket-book concerns do influence attitudes toward globalization, this study calls into question the standard assumption that individuals understand and can correctly identify the sources of their economic anxieties. Accelerated automation may have intensified attempts to resist globalization.


Racial resentment is the biggest predictor of immigration attitudes, study finds

Not a surprising correlation:

White Americans’ negative attitudes toward immigrants are driven overwhelmingly by racial prejudices, not “economic anxiety,” according to a working paper by political scientist Steven V. Miller of Clemson University.

Immigration hard-liners, including President Trump, often frame their arguments with ostensibly race-neutral appeals to public safety or economic interest. As Trump said in July 2015, Mexicans are “taking our jobs. They’re taking our manufacturing jobs. They’re taking our money. They’re killing us.” This has led many commentators to conclude that the attitudes driving Trump and his supporters on questions of immigration are primarily economic, rather than racial in nature.

Political scientists have subsequently tested this theory, at least as it applies to Trump support overall, and found it lackingover and over and over again. But Miller’s paper is extremely useful because it removes the question from the specific context of 2016 and places it in a more general policy realm.

To do this, he draws on nationally representative survey data from the American National Election Studies and the Voter Study Group, two well-established surveys of voter attitudes and behavior. To measure views on immigration, the surveys ask respondents whether levels of immigration should be increased, decreased or left the same.

The surveys measure racial attitudes using a well-established battery of questions on “racial resentment.” Political scientists generally define this as something like “a moral feeling that blacks violate such traditional American values as individualism and self-reliance.” It’s measured via agreement with statements like, “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites” and “Irish, Italians, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.”

The surveys also include a number of ways to measure what’s come to be known as “economic anxiety”: evaluations about the country’s economic health, as well as respondents’ employment status and job market conditions in their communities, counties and states of residence.

Miller also controlled for a number of common economic and demographic variables, such as income, education, age, political party and gender. Respondents’ race wasn’t included as a control because the study looked at the views of only white respondents.

Miller essentially ran a number of statistical tests to determine how white Americans’ economic and racial attitudes correlated with their immigration beliefs: Does being unemployed make white voters more or less likely to support decreasing immigration? What about belief in the strength of the economy? As respondents’ racial resentments increase, what does that do to their views on immigration?

All told, the analyses were “unequivocal that racial resentment is reliably the largest and most precise predictor of attitudes toward immigration,” Miller found. As the chart above shows, “racial resentment has the largest magnitude effect” on the odds that a white respondent will express a preference for less legal immigration. The effect of racial resentment has “nearly six times” the impact as a belief that the economy has gotten worse on respondents’ propensity to favor less immigration.

The racial resentment questions ask only about attitudes toward black Americans. They don’t mention Hispanic immigrants at all. And yet, Miller found, white Americans’ attitudes toward blacks were a powerful predictor of how they felt about immigration. “The familiar racial resentment toward African-Americans is part of a bigger syndrome in which ethnicity/race filters perspectives toward policy, more broadly,” he writes.

Miller cautions that the paper is still in its early stages and has not been peer-reviewed. But his findings do comport with much of the prior research on racial resentment and Trump support, and it makes sense that those attitudes would spill over into more general policy areas as well.

In the end, this should come as no surprise — the empirical case for restricting immigration is a poor one. Studies have consistently shown no link between immigrants and crime, for instance, and the net effect of immigration, legal or otherwise, on the economy tends to be positive, particularly in the long run.

Moreover, a country with a falling fertility rate needs immigration to offset population decline, fill job vacancies and contribute to government coffers.

In the end, Miller writes, “an ounce of racial resentment is worth a pound of economic anxiety.”

Source: Racial resentment is the biggest predictor of immigration attitudes, study finds

A God? That’s complicated. Canadians hanging on to personal faith as organized religion declines: poll | National Post

Angus Reid Religon Poll 2015 - Feelings Towards.001The National Post provides a very good infographic summarizing the findings of the recent Angus-Reid survey Religion and faith in Canada today: strong belief, ambivalence and rejection define our views which contains a wealth of information on attitudes and practices and worth reviewing.

Chart above highlights feelings towards different religions and is largely unsurprising.

The chart below provides a relatively rare view of immigration by religion between 2001-11, showing that while religious minorities are a significant share (36 percent), they are still less than Christian immigrants (42 percent). But the median age of religious minorities is younger than for Christians: 32 compared to 41.

Religious Immigration 2001-11.001

A God? That’s complicated. Canadians hanging on to personal faith as organized religion declines: poll | National Post.

The US political divide on views toward Muslims and Islam | Pew Research Center

USA Views of Religion - PewMapping US party affiliation to attitudes towards different religions. Sharp contrast:

Party affiliation is not the only factor that correlates with differing views toward Muslims and Islam. Younger U.S. adults of all ideological stripes feel more warmly toward Muslims than do older Americans. On the feeling thermometer, those ages 65 and older gave Muslims an average rating of 32 – they don’t rate any group more negatively – while Americans ages 18-29, on average, rated Muslims more positively, at 49.

One’s own religious affiliation also is a factor. For instance, we found that no other religious group is cooler toward Muslims than are white evangelical Protestants, who give Muslims an average rating of 30.

Compared with other groups, older Americans and white evangelicals both tend to affiliate heavily with the Republican Party.

Haven’t seen an equivalent chart for Canada mapping political affiliations to political party supporters although one would expect a similar breakdown between Canadian right and left leaning parties.

The political divide on views toward Muslims and Islam | Pew Research Center.