Immigration and Identity


One of the obstacles to discussing immigration is the need to first dispel false opinions. Public opinion about the economic impact of immigration, immigrants’ use of social resources, crime rates, and much else often diverges sharply from reality. People frequently ask why immigrants don’t go through established channels and wait their turn in the cue, not realizing that there are no established channels they can access. In the United States, politicians and pundits don’t hesitate to assert President Obama’s refusal to secure the US borders, oblivious to the 419,384 deportations in 2012 and the extraordinary boom in immigration detention. The list goes on. (The Christian Science Monitor has a useful summary of 10 Immigration Myths Debunked.)
In some respects, the widespread misinformation about immigration is reassuring, since it suggests the possibility of a rational debate if only people learned the facts. Peter Sutherland has a recent piece on Project Syndicate on how negative public opinion on immigration is largely a result of false beliefs rather than a deep-set antipathy toward migration. Sutherland writes:
The most important finding of the [German Marshall Fund’s] Transatlantic Trends survey is that concern about immigrants falls sharply when people are given even the most basic facts. For example, when asked if there are too many immigrants in their country, 38% of the Americans surveyed agreed. But when respondents were told how many foreigners actually reside in the US before being asked that question, their views changed significantly: just 21% replied that there were too many.

European surveys produce similar results. As a response, Sutherland calls for “reality-based debate and policymaking” on immigration as a remedy for populism and extremist parties.
I’m less sanguine than Sutherland about the possibilities for reality-based debate. In their 2007 article, European Opinion about Immigration: The Role of Identities, Interests and Information, John Sides and Jack Citrin mention the importance of false beliefs about the size of immigration as a significant factor in negative public opinions. But they go a step further, analyzing European opinion on immigration using a distinction between interest-based and identity-based explanations. Interest-based explanations posit that people oppose immigration because they believe it affects their material well-being, e.g., through job loss, lower wages, fewer public benefits, more crime, etc.  Identity-based explanations are about cultural and national identity. Sides and Citrin find that perceptions about cultural threats play a greater role than perceptions about economic threats (501).
If people are convinced that their interests are threatened by immigration, showing that this is untrue should shift attitudes. It is more difficult how to show that convictions about culture and national identity are false. Indeed, to draw from my last blog post, it may be that the cultural frame (which includes identity) affects what people are disposed to believe about economics, security, politics, and the environment.
If this is correct, political philosophers have a daunting – and controversial – task. If it opposition to immigration could be largely explained by misinformation, then what are needed are better mechanisms for sharing information (which would include reforming how the media represent immigration, changing about curriculum content and delivery in K-12 education, trying to shift political debates away from polarized sound-bites, etc.). But if identity-based concerns make it difficult for people to accept true information, it is necessary to encourage people to reshape their identities so that they see their nation and culture as diverse, porous, and/or cosmopolitan. In other words, a nation rebuilding strategy is warranted.

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