by Gregory A. Smith

Despite the strong pro-immigrant statements issued recently by a number of prominent religious leaders1, polls show that large segments of the public – including many Catholics, mainline Protestants and evangelicals – harbor serious concerns about immigrants and immigration. But among these three groups, those who attend church most frequently tend to be more likely than their less-frequently-attending counterparts to share their religious leaders’ pro-immigrant sentiments. This disparity in perspective often persists even after controlling for socio-economic variables such as income, education, gender, and race.

These findings are based on recent Pew Research Center surveys conducted in February, March and April 2006 that provide an opportunity to examine more closely the relationship between religion and attitudes on immigration. This analysis focuses on the views of white evangelical Protestants, white mainline Protestants and white non-Hispanic Catholics (who together account for nearly 60% of the population) – as well as on the views of secular Americans, who comprise 11% of the public.2 A companion piece focuses on the views of African Americans on the subject of immigration.

Religious Traditions and Attitudes toward Immigrants

Overwhelming majorities across the religious spectrum see Hispanics in a favorable light and view immigrants from Latin America as a hard-working group with strong family values. But when asked about the impact of immigrants on American society and the U.S. economy, many more Americans (including members of each of the three largest religious groups) express negative views. Nearly half of the public, for instance, agrees with the statement that the growing number of newcomers threaten traditional American customs and values, compared with 45% who say that newcomers strengthen American society.

White non-Hispanic Catholics and white mainline Protestants closely resemble the public as a whole on this question. White evangelicals seem to be particularly wary of the impact of newcomers, with 63% of them seeing immigrants as a threat to U.S. customs and values. On this question, it is only among seculars that a majority are in agreement with the pro-immigrant sentiments expressed by many religious leaders.

Members of major religious groups also share — and in the case of white evangelicals exceed — the general public’s uneasiness about the economic impact of immigrants. Overall, a majority of Americans (52%) agree that immigrants are an economic burden because they take Americans’ jobs, housing and health care. By contrast, only four-in-ten (41%) believe that newcomers strengthen the country through their hard work and talents. The view that immigrants are a burden on the country is held by majorities of all three of the largest religious groups, including more than six-in-ten white evangelicals. As before, seculars have the most favorable views of immigrants. But like the public as whole, even seculars have become increasingly likely in recent months to view immigrants as an economic burden.

Most Religiously Committed Are Less Negative toward Immigrants

American politics are often described using the language of a “culture war,” pitting the most religious Americans (who tend to be politically conservative) against the most secular Americans (who tend to be more liberal). But the culture war analogy does not accurately describe the situation when it comes to immigration.

When we hold constant the impact of various demographic and socioeconomic factors such as income, education and gender that may influence attitudes toward immigration, we find that frequency of church attendance is associated with more favorable views of immigrants and immigration on several of these questions. In other words, among the largest religious groups, those who are the most religiously committed tend to be more similar to seculars than are those who are less religiously committed. Across all three religious groups, for instance, those who attend church infrequently are much more likely to view immigrants as an economic burden than are those who attend church at least once a week.

Attitudes toward Immigration Policies

Given the concerns Americans express about the impact of immigrants on American society and the economy, it is not surprising that the public is also divided in their views of how best to approach immigration policy. Most Americans express at least some degree of support for allowing immigrants a chance to remain in the U.S. The April Pew poll, for instance, found that a majority of the public (including a majority of white evangelicals and nearly six-in-ten white mainline Protestants and white, non-Hispanic Catholics) favors allowing undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for several years to gain legal working status and the possibility of citizenship in the future.

But responses to other questions reflect a somewhat less accommodating stance toward immigration. For instance, when asked whether legal immigration should be increased, decreased or kept at the present level, a plurality of Americans (40%) say it should be decreased. Nearly as many (37%) say that legal immigration should be kept at its present level, while fewer than one-in-five express support for increasing legal immigration. Evangelicals and Catholics are even more supportive of decreasing immigration than is the public as a whole.

Members of major religious groups also share the view of the solid majority of Americans that illegal immigrants should have to return home at some point, though most reject the idea of making this an immediate requirement. Even among white Catholics and mainline Protestants, whose leaders have been most outspoken in encouraging their flocks to be welcoming to immigrants, only about one-in-four say that illegal immigrants should be able to remain in the U.S permanently. Seculars are the most willing to welcome immigrants permanently, with a plurality favoring such a course.

And while the general public is about evenly divided (45% to 47%) over whether to prosecute people who assist undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States, white evangelicals express majority support for making it a crime to assist undocumented immigrants this way. By contrast, a majority of seculars oppose making provision of such assistance a crime.

Again, however, the most committed members of these religious groups tend to be less supportive of some restrictive immigration policies. Among white evangelicals, for instance, those who attend church weekly are somewhat less likely to say that illegal immigrants should be required to return home immediately and are substantially less likely to say that legal immigration should be decreased. And among mainline Protestants, infrequent attenders are most likely to oppose allowing undocumented workers to gain legal status.


Regardless of their religious background, Americans have serious concerns about immigration and favor a cautious approach to immigration policy. This is true even of Catholics and mainline Protestants, whose leaders have been quite outspoken in support of immigrants and a more hospitable immigration policy. But within each of the three largest religious groups in the U.S., the most religiously committed Americans tend to hold views that are more favorable toward immigrants. While church shepherds may not be getting through to all of their flock, they may be having better luck reaching their most attentive parishioners.

More information on the surveys discussed here, including methodological details and exact question wording, is available online:

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press/Pew Hispanic Center: America’s Immigration Quandary

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press: Public Disillusionment with Congress at Record Levels


1For example, influential Catholic officials such as Cardinal Roger Mahony in Los Angeles and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in Washington, D.C., have publicly criticized proposals to enact restrictive immigration policies. Many mainline Protestant leaders also have lent their voices to the pro-immigrant cause. Frank Griswold, the presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church USA, for instance, criticized proposals to construct barriers along the U.S.-Mexican border and to punish undocumented immigrants. Prominent evangelical organizations have been less visible on the issue, but a number of moderate and liberal evangelical leaders, including David Neff of Christianity Today and Jim Wallis of Sojourners, have spoken out in favor of allowing illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

2We focus here on white Protestants and white Catholics because they tend to hold distinctive political views compared with non-white members of these religious traditions. Hispanic Catholics, unlike their non-Hispanic counterparts, hold overwhelmingly positive views toward immigrants and support lenient immigration policies.