Poll: Pa. residents say 'yes' to Syrian refugees, express concern over screening

November 07, 2016

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — A new Penn State Harrisburg poll shows a majority of Pennsylvanians support accepting more Syrian refugees into the country, but the issue is polarizing: While many Republicans strongly oppose this policy due to security concerns, Democrats strongly support it based on U.S. core values. Both sides cite concerns over screening.

The survey data consist of responses from 660 randomly selected adult Pennsylvania residents who were asked “Do you support or oppose the United States taking in refugees from the conflict in Syria after screening them for security?” The results of the poll show that 54 percent of respondents supported the arrival of Syrian refugees in the U.S., while 39 percent opposed it. The data was collected as part of an omnibus survey administered by telephone through the Center for Survey Research at Penn State Harrisburg between Aug. 18 and Oct. 15, 2016.

According to Juliette Tolay, assistant professor of political science in Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Public Affairs, the survey results show that compared to national data, Pennsylvanians seem more supportive of the arrival of refugees. Tolay also stressed that, based on the poll’s findings, policymakers should address public concerns by improving asylum policies and raising awareness about screening processes.    

At the national level, most polls conducted since November 2015 indicated that a majority of the American public opposed bringing in more Syrian refugees over those who favored it. Polls from the last 70 years have shown that the American public always tended to oppose increased intake of refugees, whatever their origins, Tolay said.

“In November 2015, the terrorist attacks in Paris triggered a conversation on Syrian refugees on whether Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. could pose a security threat,” Tolay said. “As many U.S. governors affirmed that they would not allow Syrian refugees to be resettled in their state, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Pennsylvania would continue working with the federal government to accept Syrian refugees.”

Pennsylvania had resettled a number of Syrian refugees before the announcement and continued to do so after. However, among the broader refugee population, Syrians represent a small group: in 2015, out of 2,764 refugees resettled in Pennsylvania, 112 were from Syria. Many more were resettled from Bhutan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, and Somalia, Tolay said.

Still, Pennsylvanians remain divided on accepting Syrian refugees.

“High numbers in the ‘strongly (support or oppose)’ question indicate that the issue is polarizing,” Tolay said. “Similar to national polls, Pennsylvania also shows a statistically significant relationship between support for Syrian refugees and political affiliation.”

In the survey, self-declared Republicans (45 percent) strongly opposed taking in Syrian refugees, while 43 percent of self-declared Democrats strongly supported taking them.

“These results are not surprising given that the two 2016 presidential candidates have taken radically different positions on the issue of Syrian refugees,” Tolay said.

Pennsylvanians’ opposition to or support of refugees from Syria is also related to their confidence in the federal government’s ability to deliver services. The majority of respondents who rated the federal government’s job as “very bad” strongly oppose taking in Syrian refugees, while most who rated the government as “very good” strongly support it.

Pennsylvanians’ concerns about the federal government were also evident in the answers to open-ended questions about why they supported or opposed Syrian refugees. A third of respondents expressed some concerns about the security screening of refugees before they enter the U.S. Supporters and opponents to Syrian refugees raised this issue. Among supporters, a majority expressed that they did not have sufficient information on whether the current screening and vetting system is appropriate. Among opponents, a majority thought that the current screening system was not good enough or that it would be impossible to have a vetting system that could guarantee that no refugee would endanger U.S. lives. Tolay said these figures are important because “they indicate that better information about the existing screening process in general, as well as the additional process required for refugees coming from Syria, could help alleviate some public concerns.”

Among those who overall oppose Syrian refugees, the two reasons mentioned most after concerns with screening were the terrorist threat that refugees pose and the need to first help U.S. citizens (particularly veterans and homeless people) before helping refugees. On the other hand, Pennsylvanians also articulated the reasons that they support the arrival of refugees, with many expressing sympathy for the dramatic plight of Syrians. But the most commonly advanced rationale is based on values, identity and history — respondents expressed that receiving refugees is what the U.S. stands for and does, and that “we are all immigrants,” Tolay said.

For additional information, see the Nov. 1, 2016, Political Science and Public Policy Research Brief.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 07, 2016