Understanding anti-immigrant sentiment

Feb 19, 2010 by Peter Dizikes

(PhysOrg.com) -- Immigration is a long-simmering issue in the politics of many countries, including the United States. A 2007 Pew poll found that three-quarters of all U.S. citizens want to further restrict immigration. But what?s behind such strongly held views?

Conventional wisdom holds that American attitudes toward are shaped by both economic and cultural considerations. In trying to explain the of U.S. citizens, social scientists have pointed to two forms of self-interest: Fear over increased competition for jobs, and resentment over having to pay for the social services used by immigrants and their families.

A new public-opinion research experiment by MIT Jens Hainmueller and his Harvard colleague Michael Hiscox paints a very different picture. American citizens, they find, are not necessarily afraid of job competition or supporting public services. Instead, the striking thing about Americans’ attitude toward immigration is that they collectively tend to prefer immigrant workers with refined job skills instead of those lacking good training: Citizens will welcome, say, a computer programmer more readily than a manual laborer.

“People seem to be much more in favor of high-skill immigrants because they think they contribute more to society,” says Hainmueller. As a practical matter, that insight could help public officials find some new ways of gaining popular support for new immigration programs. In less predictable ways, the findings could alter public discussion of immigration by suggesting that Americans see immigration even more markedly as a cultural matter than previous thought.

“Policy-makers need to better understand what causes anti-immigrant sentiments because resistant public opinion is the key roadblock for immigration reform in the U.S. and many other countries,” explains Hainmueller. “From this perspective our results are both bad news and good news. They suggest that public opinion should be less of a problem for immigration policies that specifically target high-skilled immigrants. But the results also suggest that a fair amount of the anti-immigration sentiment is driven by deep-seated cultural factors that are difficult to change with policy tools.”

And while in much public opinion research it is normally very difficult to assess issues of cultural perception directly, the results Hainmueller and Hiscox found — that economic concerns over immigration are either less significant or different in nature than previously assumed — thus indirectly reinforce the idea that culture powerfully shapes public perception of the immigration issue.

Survey says

The finding that Americans tend to favor high-skill immigrants regardless of their own economic status upends . Consider the idea that immigrants take jobs away — the “labor market competition model,” in social-science argot. If true, Americans should be more resistant to immigrants with the same job skills as themselves. But as Hainmueller and Hiscox show, about half of Americans with college degrees “disagree” or “strongly disagree” that the country should allow more low-skilled immigrants into the country — yet only about a quarter say the same thing about highly-skilled immigrants.

Overall, in a study of 2,285 American citizens, conducted in late 2007 and early 2008, Hainmueller and Hiscox found that about 35 percent of all people strongly disagree with the statement that the U.S. should have more low-skilled immigrants, while about 20 percent “agree” or “strongly agree.” The numbers reverse when Americans are asked if more highly skilled immigrants should enter the country: about 20 percent strongly disagree, while about 35 percent agree or strongly agree.

The results appear in a new paper, “Attitudes Toward Highly Skilled and Low Skilled Immigration: Evidence from a Survey Experiment,” which is being published in the February issue of the American Political Science Review. The data comes from a survey conducted on behalf of the researchers by the survey firm Knowledge Networks. Hainmueller and Hiscox used what social scientists call a “cross-over” design for the research, randomly asking half the respondents first about either high-skilled or low-skilled immigrants, then reversing the questions two weeks later. This allowed them to see if individuals were providing consistent answers over time (they were).

Hainmueller and Hiscox also found reason to doubt the idea that the affluent resist immigration because they resent footing the bill for the welfare state — the “fiscal burden model,” as social scientists call it. When the researchers analyzed the survey participants by education level — dividing them into high school dropouts, high school graduates, people with some college, and those with at least one higher-education degree — they found that at all education levels, the number of Americans who “strongly disagree” with allowing low-skilled immigrants into the country was twice the number who share the same degree of opposition to high-skilled immigrants.

If the fiscal burden model were the sole driver of anti-immigrant sentiment among the well-off, then in theory, wealthier, better-educated Americans would oppose immigration more than poorer Americans, and there would be a declining relative tolerance for low-skilled immigrants as education levels rise. In short, neither of the two traditional ideas about economic self-interest is, by itself, a full explanation of people’s views.

“Overall the results suggest that economic self-interest, at least currently theorized, does not explain voter attitudes toward immigration,” write Hainmueller and Hiscox in the article.

An alternate idea Hainmueller would consider exploring in the future is how much attitudes depend on particular types of work. “It could be very industry specific,” he says. “In an industry where there is a lot of competition with immigrants, like the food service industry, there may be a great deal of variation in the support for immigrants.”

‘We don’t know stuff we thought we knew’

But colleagues say the findings of Hainmueller and Hiscox should re-open still larger debates about the core reasons why many Americans want to tighten immigration policy: Do attitudes depend primarily on cultural or economic concerns?

“The wider implication of their work is that we don’t know stuff we thought we knew about how material interests affect public attitudes toward immigrants,” says Ron Rogowski, a professor of political science at UCLA (and an editor at the APSR.)

If traditional notions of economic self-interest do not shape attitudes as much as previously assumed, Hainmueller acknowledges, we may want to examine more closely how cultural appeals to traditional notions of American values and identity shape public opinion.

“I think there really is something to this idea of culture, in that some people have a deep-seated skepticism of immigration,” says Hainmueller.

As a way of studying the culture-or-economy issue as it shapes attitudes to immigration, Hainmueller is currently engaged in a fine-grained study of immigration in Switzerland, where the admission of individual can be determined after debates and votes among local citizens. By studying that process, he says, “We may be more able to get at the relative strength of these cultural and economic factors.” In the long run, Hainmueller thinks, the Swiss study may give him substantive or methodological insights he can apply back to the United States.

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jtdrexel
not rated yet Feb 19, 2010
I work for a big pharma R&D. And there are people here from all kinds of ethnicity. Seems like there are more highly skilled non-Americans than Americans! But I think the mixed population of highly skilled non-Americans and Americans play a major role in delivering the medicines we need! For a company that is worldwide, it makes sense to have a diverse population of
jtdrexel
not rated yet Feb 19, 2010
highly skilled staff. I think Americas output of highly skilled people should increase
deatopmg
5 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2010
Immigration policy used to select skilled workers over unskilled workers for a very good reason - it maximizes the benefit to the nation, not to the immigrant.

Today, illegal, unskilled immigrants appear to be selected over legal immigrants, skilled or unskilled. We are are supposed to be a nation of laws, not emotions.

THis study does not clearly differentiate between legal and illegal status, therefore the results are biased and invalid because attitudes toward the 2 classes are VASTLY different.
Thrasymachus
5 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2010
Wasn't this a survey that asked about increasing or restricting legal immigration? One's feelings about illegal immigrants should be irrelevant, unless you think increased legal immigration of low-skill workers leads to increased illegal immigration of low-skill workers.

I think there's two suspicions in people's minds when it comes to low-skill immigrants. The first is the classic "other" attitude; these people are not like me, my family and my friends, so they can't be trusted. Skilled immigrants are less likely to fall prey to this, as they've likely had some Western education, making them more "like us."

The second, I think, is that low-skilled immigrants are more likely to be poor, and poverty breeds crime. By letting more such immigrants in, we feel we run the risk of increasing gang violence, drug trafficking and corruption.
wthrush
not rated yet Feb 19, 2010
I have many Latino friends, some of whom are probably illegal immigrants. Having said this, I am against ILLEGAL immigration, simply because it is WRONG, i.e. AGAINST THE LAW! "We are a nation of laws..."??? If there is sufficient support among the voters, we can change the law. Otherwise, I would like to see ALL the laws enforced consistently, for everyone!
idaho
not rated yet Feb 20, 2010
As the world becomes more overcrowded every day bringing in more people does not seem wise to me
Thrasymachus
not rated yet Feb 20, 2010
As the world becomes more overcrowded every day bringing in more people does not seem wise to me

That's just dumb. Immigration doesn't have any direct effect on world population. Only people making babies faster than we can kill each other off increases world pop. And the population density in the US is far below most other industrialized countries.
Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Feb 21, 2010
Read the article and its context as culture-ism rather than racism. There will be culture-ist violence. The have-nots vs. the havs and the Third World ne'er-do-wells vs. everybody else. All men are born equal, everybody else pays cash.

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