The 2-Minute Thought: Unraveling how we see immigration

Attitudes on immigration are complex.  With recent news flow so focused on politically charged atmospheres around the world, it is easy to believe that the globe has turned against immigration. 

But attitudes within regions are variegated.  And large swaths around the world support immigration more than they oppose it.

 A 2015 Gallup World Poll done for the International Organization for Migration asked 183,000 people in 140 countries two questions about immigration:

1)      Should immigration in your country be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased?

2)      Do you think immigrants mostly take jobs that citizens in your country do not want or jobs that citizens want?

Though there were both positive and negative attitudes in all regions and countries surveyed, worldwide, the study found that more people favored keeping immigration levels where they were or increasing immigration rather than decreasing it.  

Europe was the only region that stood out for being more negative than positive: 52% of those surveyed in Europe said immigration in their countries should decrease.  This was driven by highly negative attitudes in the UK (69% favored decreasing immigration) and Russia (70% favored decreasing immigration).  But apart from the UK, much of northern Europe remained favorable toward immigration.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are places like United Arab Emirates, where migrants account for more than 8 out of 10 of the population, and Australia, where immigrants account for more than half the country’s population growth over the past 10 years.  Attitudes toward immigration in these countries are overwhelmingly favorable.  The U.S., as a whole, also remains more supportive of immigration than negative.

And then there is Canada.  In a separate survey done late in 2016, eight out of 10 Canadians said they still believe immigration is good for the country.   A majority say they are confident that immigration controls are effectively keeping out criminals.  Nine out of 10 believe a person born outside of Canada is as likely to be a good citizen as a person born within Canada.  And generally, few worry about immigrants not adopting “Canadian values.”

The International Organization for Migration’s study found that those who believed economic conditions in their countries were “fair” or “poor” were almost twice as likely to favor decreasing immigration than those who saw conditions as “excellent” or “good.”  Countries with high unemployment rates were most likely to view immigration unfavorably.  And personal economic situations – like income levels and standard of living -- also were found to affect attitudes toward immigration levels.  All these things accord with our common belief that economic hardship and a sense of unfairness give rise to anti-immigration feelings.

But a 2014 study by Jens Hainmueller and Daniel J. Hopkins of Stanford found that people actually care little about how immigration affects their own personal economic circumstances.  What matters most is how they see immigration impacting the country as a whole – largely in symbolic concerns like national identity and cultural and linguistic cohesion.  And that could explain why Canada’s positive attitudes toward immigration have been stable for a long time through different economic cycles.