(December 2001) The dramatic increase in the minority population of the United States due to immigration has been a major story emerging from the 2000 Census. The story has focused on the numbers of immigrants and the places where they settle. While the largest number of immigrants have concentrated in a handful of large gateway cities — Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Washington, D.C.-Baltimore, and Miami — some of the highest rates of minority population growth have been in smaller and geographically dispersed metropolitan areas such as Charlotte, N.C.

But what about the attitudes of native-born citizens toward immigrants? How receptive are U.S. residents to these newcomers? And how does receptivity toward immigrants differ across the country? The maps below, which draw on data from the 1994 General Social Survey (see box), illustrate the differences in the warmth of the welcome extended to immigrants across U.S. census divisions and metropolitan areas.

Large Metropolitan Areas

Among native-born citizens living in 20 major metropolitan areas, those in Atlanta, Baltimore, Detroit, Miami, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., were the most receptive toward immigrants (top map). Respondents living in Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis also reported generally warm and welcoming attitudes. On the other hand, native-born Americans living in Dallas, San Diego, San Francisco, and Tampa, Fla., expressed the least receptive attitudes toward immigrants, while citizens of Boston, Houston, and Los Angeles had generally cool attitudes toward immigrants.

Receptivity Toward Immigrants, by Area

20 Major Metropolitan Areas

Smaller Metropolitan Areas

Nonmetropolitan Areas

Source: Authors’ analysis of GSS data.

This pattern shows that, with the notable exception of Phoenix, American citizens living in metropolitan areas close to the U.S.-Mexico border reported less receptive attitudes toward immigrants. All of the big California and Texas metropolitan areas have large and increasing Hispanic and Asian populations. With a similarly large and growing Hispanic population, Phoenix is an interesting anomaly.

Another anomaly is the stark difference in receptivity toward immigrants among Floridians residing in Miami and Tampa. Native-born citizens in Miami reported warm and those in Tampa cool attitudes toward immigrants. Historic differences in the region of origin and the socioeconomic composition of immigrants may help explain the contrasting receptivity toward immigrants by residents of these fairly close cities; Miami has a large Cuban community, which includes business and professional immigrants, and retirees of European origin, while Tampa draws more immigrants from Mexico and from Central American countries.

Smaller Metropolitan Areas

The middle map shows that native-born citizens in the industrial Midwest (East North Central division) expressed the greatest receptivity toward immigrants. This pattern is congruent with the positive attitudes toward immigrants expressed by residents in the large metropolitan areas of this region — Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Louis. Furthermore, Americans in smaller metropolitan areas in both the West North Central and West South Central agricultural divisions, in the Pacific division, and in New England all reported generally warm attitudes toward immigrants. This pattern for the smaller metropolitan areas contrasts with the more negative attitudes toward immigrants in the large California and Texas metropolitan cities, and in Boston. Immigrant population growth, while rapid in some smaller metropolitan areas, has been relatively recent and constitutes a smaller proportion of a city’s population than for many of the large metropolitan areas. Residents of smaller metropolitan areas in the Middle Atlantic, South Atlantic, and Mountain divisions reported the least receptivity toward immigrants.

Nonmetropolitan Areas

Receptivity of nonmetropolitan Americans toward immigrants was decidedly cooler (bottom map). Only nonmetropolitan residents of the industrial Midwest expressed generally positive attitudes toward immigrants, while residents of the South Atlantic and those of the West South Central and West North Central agricultural divisions reported the least receptive attitudes toward immigrants. Although recent labor shortages in some agriculture-related industries have drawn immigrants to some small towns and rural areas that have little previous experience with immigrant populations, a generally less receptive attitude toward immigrants is prevalent among nonmetropolitan Americans all across the country.

Just as 2000 Census data show diversity in immigrants’ settlement patterns across the country, the data presented here demonstrate that there are more and less receptive areas for immigrants, based on the attitudes of native-born citizens. For potential immigrants, this information sends a signal about where assimilation to the United States may be easier or more difficult. In general, metropolitan area citizens have a more receptive and nonmetropolitan area citizens a less receptive attitude toward immigrants, and those in the industrial Midwest have a more receptive attitude toward immigrants than those in the South Atlantic division and in the large metropolitan areas of California and Texas.

Researchers have suggested several possible explanations for the diverse attitudes toward immigrants, the dominant one being regional variations in economic conditions. Receptivity toward immigrants becomes decidedly cooler as unemployment rates of U.S. citizens increase and warmer when unemployment rates fall. Rising unemployment among citizens triggers economic insecurity, and labor market competition engenders nativism. Another explanation is the perception by citizens that illegal immigrants are a drain on local and state public resources, a perception that helped drive the passage of Proposition 187 in California. “Prop 187,” passed in late 1994, cut off some health and social services, including access to public education, to illegal immigrants and their children. The initiative was put on hold by a federal court, but its passage generated a national immigration debate and major legislation in Congress.

In contrast, the cultural affinity explanation suggests that a warmer welcome of immigrants may stem from large concentrations of immigrants of similar origin in certain metropolitan areas or regions. And a consistent finding is a more positive attitude toward immigrants in areas with a higher mean level of educational attainment for the native population.

Policymakers regularly use legislative and financial incentives and disincentives to regulate the size of immigration flows and the occupational skills of immigrants. But policymakers infrequently address the receptivity of U.S. citizens toward immigrants — attitudes that may be critical not only to the economic productivity of immigrants in their jobs, but also to their assimilation into the life of local communities and to their ability to adapt to the social norms and civil order expectations of U.S. society. Given that the 1994 General Social Survey was conducted well into the recovery from the 1991–1992 recession, the data here probably represent a relatively high point for the receptivity scale.

Gordon F. De Jong is distinguished professor of sociology and demography and director of the graduate program in demography at the Pennsylvania State University. Quynh-Giang Tran is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and demography at the Pennsylvania State University.

Data and Methods

The data are from the National Opinion Research Center’s 1994 General Social Survey, a representative sample of the adult population in the United States. Proprietary geocoding information permitted the identification of the major metropolitan area and census division in which each respondent lived. Factor analysis was used to derive four dimensions of receptivity toward immigrants: immigrant impacts on society, immigrants as hardworking, illegal immigrants’ privileges, and English-only policies. Standardized scale scores were summed across the four dimensions to produce a summary measure of receptivity toward immigrants. The sample used was 1,361 native-born U.S. citizens.