Houston Area Survey: Support for immigration has grown significantly

As the immigration debate in the U.S. Senate heats up, findings from the 32nd annual Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey show that support for immigration reform has grown significantly among Houstonians. Other findings in this year’s survey: Area residents overwhelmingly support expanding criminal background checks for gun sales, support for gay rights has grown significantly, and Houstonians report no improvement at all in their personal financial situations despite Houston’s strong economy and low unemployment rates.

The survey results were released today by sociologist Stephen Klineberg, co-director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, at a news conference on campus.

Immigration and ethnic relations.

Attitudes toward immigration have changed significantly in recent years as the city’s population has continued to surge and turn Houston into the single most ethnically diverse large metropolitan area in the country. The percent of Houstonians in favor of granting immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally apath to legal citizenship “if they speak English and have no criminal record” increased from 64 percent in 2009 to 71 percent in 2011 and to 83 percent in 2013. In this year’s survey, 61 percent asserted that the increasing immigration into this country “mostly strengthens” (rather than “mostly threatens”) American culture, up from 47 percent in 2011.

The survey results were released April 23 by sociologist Stephen Klineberg, co-director of Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

“People have been feeling better in recent years about the new immigration,” Klineberg said. “The benefits that immigrants bring to communities are becoming clearer and the number of new immigrants has fallen dramatically in the past five years, sothere is less sense of being overwhelmed by foreigners. The prospects for meaningful immigration reform are better today than at any time since 9-11.”

The perceived relations among ethnic groups in the Houston area have also continued to improve, with 51 percent of all respondents now rating those relations as “excellent” or “good,” up from 21 percent in the early 1990s.

Moreover, the survey shows that younger Anglos are far more comfortable with and more approving of the new ethnic diversity than their older counterparts. Seventy-one percent of Anglos aged 18-29 and 61 percent of those aged 30-44 said that the increasing ethnic diversity brought about by immigration is a “good thing,” compared with 57 percent of Anglos aged 45-59 and 48 percent of those aged 60 and older. In addition, Anglos under the age of 60 are more likely than the older respondents to report having close personal friends who are Asian, Latino or African-American and far more likely to say they have been in a romantic relationship with someone who was non-Anglo.

“Younger Anglos have grown up in a taken-for-granted world of ethnic and cultural diversity that differs importantly from the experience of those who came of age in the America of the 1950s and 1960s,” Klineberg said. “These generational attitude shifts bode well for Houston’s efforts to build a truly successful multiethnic future as the 21st century unfolds.”

Gun control.

The overwhelming majority of Houston-area residents – 89 percent – support universal criminal background checks for all gun sales, with 82 percent indicating that they “strongly favor” background checks, according to the survey. In addition, nearly half of all Houstonians – 45 percent – are in favor of a federal law banning assault weapons.

“This pervasive support for gun control underscores the difference between ‘public opinion’ and ‘politically effective’ opinion,” Klineberg said. “The committed opponents of gun control are in the minority, but they are far more likely than supporters to make their voices heard in the halls of power and to be able to prevent enactment of new laws, even when these are favored by the vast majority of the general public.”

Gay rights and same-sex marriage.

Support for gay rights has grown consistently and significantly in recent years, Klineberg said. Today more than half of all Houstonians (52 percent) believe that “homosexuality is something people cannot change” rather than “something people choose.” This view was held by 44 percent of the survey participants in 2011 and 39 percent in 2009. In addition, support for same-sex marriage is at an all-time high, with nearly half the population (46 percent) now in favor, compared with 43 percent in 2009 and 32 percent in 1997.

“Increasingly, homosexuality is coming to be seen as a part of the natural variation in the human condition and not so much as a personal choice subject to moral censure,” Klineberg said.

Support for gay rights is considerably stronger among younger respondents, with 65 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds believing that “homosexuality is morally acceptable,” compared with 32 percent of those aged 60 and older. Similarly, 61 percent of respondents aged 18-29 were in favor of same-sex marriage, compared with 36 percent of the respondents over the age of 59.

The economy and life in Houston.

Houston boasts a strong economy, with unemployment rates well below the national average (6.8 percent in January 2013, compared with 8.5 nationally). However, only 26 percent of Houstonians report that their personal economic circumstances have improved in the past few years, and only half (51 percent) expect their circumstances to improve in the next few years, registering no improvement at all from the proportions (28 and 56 percent, respectively) in 2011.

Despite the continuing economic anxieties, area residents are overwhelmingly positive about their city, Klineberg said. Fully 90 percent of the respondents said the Houston region is a “slightly better” or “much better” place to live compared with other U.S. metropolitan areas. This number is up from 78 percent in 2005.

For the second time in its 32-year history, the annual survey is now reaching representative samples of residents from the entire 10-county Houston metropolitan region. The 1,304 respondents who were interviewed in 2013 included 313 (24 percent) from outside Harris County; 34 percent of all survey participants were contacted by cellphone. The interviews were conducted between Feb. 7 and March 6 by the Philadelphia-based firm Social Science Research Solutions. “Through more than three decades of systematic research, the annual Kinder Institute Houston Area Survey has measured this region’s remarkable economic and demographic transformations and recorded the way area residents are responding to them,” Klineberg said. “No other metropolitan region in America has been the focus of a long-term research program of this scope. No city more clearly exemplifies the trends that are rapidly refashioning the social andpolitical landscape across all of urban America.”

About Amy Hodges

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.