A New York Times piece published this morning sheds light on the generation gap present in views on immigration.

In the wake of the new Arizona law allowing the police to detain people they suspect of entering the country illegally, young people are largely displaying vehement opposition — leading protests on Monday at Senator John McCain’s offices in Tucson, and at the game here between the Florida Marlins and the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Meanwhile, baby boomers, despite a youth of “live and let live,” are siding with older Americans and supporting the Arizona law.

This emerging divide has appeared in a handful of surveys taken since the measure was signed into law, including a New York Times/CBS News poll this month that found that Americans 45 and older were more likely than the young to say the Arizona law was “about right” (as opposed to “going too far” or “not far enough”). Boomers were also more likely to say that “no newcomers” should be allowed to enter the country while more young people favored a “welcome all” approach.

This makes sense given what we know about the diversity in the Millennial generation.  The New Politics Institute’s 2007 Report, “The Progressive Politics of the Millennial Generation,” cites Census data showing that nearly 40 percent of Millennials do not identify as being white.  “[A]bout 62 percent of Millennial adults are non-Hispanic white, 18 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent are black and 5 percent are Asian,” the report notes.  What sharpens the debate is that many of the areas having the most diversity among youth also have fairly homogeneous white Boomer/Silent populations.

Given their demographic diversity, Millennials hold progressive opinions about immigration compared to the rest of the population.  The Times piece, for example, provides some anecdotal evidence ensconced in the opinions and stories of youths Meaghan Patrick and Nicole Vespia.

Meaghan Patrick, a junior at New College of Florida, a tiny liberal arts college in Sarasota, says discussing immigration with her older relatives is like “hitting your head against a brick wall.”


Nicole Vespia, 18, of Selden, N.Y., said older people who were worried about immigrants stealing jobs were giving up on an American ideal: capitalist meritocracy.

“If someone works better than I do, they deserve to get the job,” Ms. Vespia said. “I work in a stockroom, and my best workers are people who don’t really speak English. It’s cool to get to know them.”

Her parents’ generation, she added, just needs to adapt.

“My stepdad says, ‘Why do I have to press 1 for English?’ I think that’s ridiculous,” Ms. Vespia said, referring to the common instruction on customer-service lines. “It’s not that big of a deal. Quit crying about it. Press the button.”

The stories are backed up by data on Millennials.  In his 2008 book/project Generation WE, Eric Greenberg cites data revealing Millennials’ open attitudes on immigration.

Generation We also has an open and positive attitude toward immigration, much more so than older generations. In the Pew Gen Next poll, 18- to 25-year-olds, by 52 to 38, said immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talent, rather than are a burden on the country because they take our jobs, housing, and healthcare, compared to very narrow pluralities in this direction among Gen Xers and Boomers and 50–30 sentiment in the other direction among those 61 and over. In a 2004 Pew survey, 67 percent of 18- to 25-year-old Millennials thought the growing number of immigrants strengthens American society and only 30 percent believed this trend threatens our customs and values—again, much stronger positive sentiment than among any other generation.

Unfortunately, most Boomer-run news outlets do not pay attention to Millennial opinion on this issue.  With older Americans voting at higher rates than young people, the age and views of Congress and other officeholders reinforce the fear-driven status quo.  Just like many other issues, to change this reality, youth must vote in higher numbers, be willing to run for office themselves, and pair this with some organized, non-traditional resistance to mount a strong opposition.  It might be convenient to take a John Mayer approach and wait for the world to change, but how many hard-working families who already embody American values will suffer in the meantime?  This is yet another issue on which we must make change now.