PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Blog Post · October 12, 2023

Californians See Problems at the Border but Sympathize with Migrants

photo - Hands and a Child's Face Poking through Border Fencing

Immigration—already a politically divisive issue—is becoming increasingly contentious. Even as asylum seekers continue to arrive at the southern border, President Biden announced plans to build new barriers along the US-Mexico border as well as resume deportation flights to Venezuela. About one-in-four Californians is an immigrant—a higher share than any other state—and most Californians (69%) generally think that immigration is a good thing for the country. So, how do they feel about the situation at the border and the migrants who arrive there?

Is the situation at the border a crisis?

Twenty-seven percent of Californians consider the situation at the US border a crisis while 37% say it is a major problem, according to our September PPIC Statewide Survey. Fewer call it a minor problem (27%) or not a problem (8%). In a similar question asked in January 2019, Californians held similar views regarding the border.

Today, partisans are deeply divided: a majority of Democrats and independents see at least a major problem with the border situation—six in ten Republicans call it a crisis. Across racial/ethnic groups, white residents are most likely to see a crisis, followed by African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. Californians age 18 to 34 (22%) or 35 to 54 (23%) are much less likely than Californians 55 and older (36%) to see a crisis.

Among Californians who see a crisis, 46% think immigration is a good thing for the country and about six in ten say immigration levels should be decreased. Meanwhile, 70% of Californians who see a major problem think immigration is a good thing and a third say immigration levels should be decreased.

Should border security be increased?

For nearly three in four of Californians, increasing security along the US-Mexico border to reduce unauthorized crossing should be at least a somewhat important goal; over a third say it should be very important. Partisans are again greatly divided, with an overwhelming majority (78%) of Republicans seeing greater security as a very important goal—and nearly all seeing it as at least somewhat important. In contrast, one in five Democrats and nearly four in ten independents say this goal should be very important. While this goal is at least somewhat important to solid majorities of Democrats and independents, Democrats place less importance on it; over a third of Democrats say it is not too or not at all important.

The goal of increasing border security is at least somewhat important to solid majorities across regions and most demographic groups. However, it is more likely to be very important to those in the Orange County/San Diego, white residents, and Californians with less than a college degree.

Are Californians sympathetic to those who venture to the US border?  

Immigration is a good thing for the country today, in the opinion of solid majorities across regions, most demographic groups, and income levels. Partisans are very divided, with Democrats about twice as likely as Republicans to say immigration is a good thing. This positive perception increases with education attainment and decreases across age groups.

An overwhelming majority (71%) of Californians say that they are very or somewhat sympathetic to people from other countries who travel to the US border in an attempt to enter the country.

Solid majorities across demographic groups and regions say they are at least somewhat sympathetic to migrants at the border. African Americans and Latinos are more likely to feel this way as are college graduates and younger adults. Less than half of Republicans and an overwhelming majority of independents and Democrats say they are sympathetic.

Most say that taking in civilian refugees from countries where there is violence or war should be a somewhat or very important goal. Majorities across parties agree; however, Democrats and independents are much more likely to say it should be an important goal—with almost half of Democrats seeing it as very important. Solid majorities across regions, demographic groups, and income levels also hold this sentiment.

Californians’ views on refugees and immigration reflect broader views of how Californians perceive immigrants and immigration policy. Californians have long viewed immigrants positively and supported efforts to reform immigration policy. However, Californians are divided on whether immigration should be kept at its present level (40%) or decreased (36%) with fewer Californians saying it should be increased (24%).

Do attitudes about immigration reflect attitudes about the current border situation?

While a strong majority of Californians say immigration is overall a good thing for the country, that thought and attitudes toward the current US-Mexico border situation are strongly linked.

Californians who see immigration as a bad thing are more negative about the border situation. Among this group, about half see the border situation as a crisis, about four in ten are sympathetic towards migrants at the border, and three-fourths say present immigration levels should decrease. Two-thirds say increasing border security should be a very important goal while 13% say taking in civilian refugees trying to escape violence/war should be very important.

Conversely, about one-fifth of Californians who say immigration is a good thing for the country think the border situation is a crisis and that immigration levels should decrease.

In the upcoming election year, tensions will be high between those with different attitudes about immigration and about events at the US southern border. Follow the PPIC Statewide Survey as we track shifts in how Californians view immigrants and immigration policy.


Immigrants in California immigration Joe Biden Political Landscape Statewide Survey