While half of all Americans believe that immigrants strengthen American society, more than half of white evangelical Protestants believe immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values according to a new survey by the Public Religion Research Institute.
The results of the survey which were released were collected as part of PRRI's 2015 American Values Atlas. The survey which includes more than 42,000 interviews conducted between April 2015 and early January 2016, examined Americans' attitudes about immigrants and support for immigration reform policy that provides a path to citizenship for immigrants currently living in the country illegally.
While a majority of persons belonging to religiously unaffiliated, non-Christian faith groups and non-white Christians hold a positive view of the contribution of immigrants to American society, white Christians "express substantially more ambivalence about immigrants" according to the survey.
Less than 50 percent of Mormons (38 percent), white Catholics (41 percent) and white mainline Protestants (43 percent) feel immigrants are a threat to American culture. White evangelical Christians are the only Christian group where the majority of respondents shared this sentiment.
"White evangelical Protestants stand out as the only religious community in which a majority (53%) believe that immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values. Only about one-third (32%) of white evangelical Protestants believe newcomers from other countries benefit the U.S.," said the study.
The survey found a generational divide. A majority, 55 percent, of young white evangelicals answered that immigrants strengthen American society.
A majority of Republicans or 53 percent, also share the view of a majority of white evangelical Protestants that immigrants are a threat to traditional customs and values while just 32 percent say they strengthen American society.
Most independents (52 percent) and Democrats (63 percent) see immigrants as a plus for American society. Most younger Republicans — a slim majority of 51 percent — between the ages of 18 and 29 also feel immigrants strengthen American society. Republicans over the age of 30 are more likely to believe immigrants pose a threat to American society.
Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of the PRRI said the generational divide on immigration needs to be taken seriously by Republican presidential candidates.
"While the campaigns of the leading Republican presidential candidates have been fueled by antipathy toward immigrants, these views are not reflective of the general public's mindset and may not resonate among younger Republicans and white evangelical Protestants," Jones said in a statement on the survey results. "While these younger voters are less of a factor in the primary season, Republican candidates will need their support in the general election."
A majority of all Americans, 62 percent, also believe immigrants who are currently living in the country illegally should be given a path to citizenship as long as they meet certain requirements. Another 15 percent say undocumented immigrants should be allowed to become permanent legal residents but not citizens, and about one in five feel they should be identified and deported.
While there are varying degrees of support for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants the consensus on the issue was clear from the survey results.
"While opinions about the cultural impact of recent immigrants are more mixed, there is remarkably broad agreement on the issue of policy," Dr. Dan Cox, PRRI's research director said. "Majorities of Americans across partisan and religious lines support a path to citizenship for immigrants who are now living in the country illegally."
The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 0.4 percentage points.