Published on People Move

Do Most of Us Favor or Oppose Immigration?

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I often hear that large parts of the society have rather negative views about immigration, in spite of the fact that a large majority of research papers clearly identifies more benefits than costs to people in the host country from immigration (see Shanta Devarjan’s blog).  So, I decided to look more closely at some of the empirical evidence on public perceptions on migration.

According to a 2013 survey by the German Marshall Fund, 46% of the Americans and 41% of Europeans see immigration more as an opportunity than a problem.  When asked if they were worried about legal immigration, 73% of respondents in America and 69% in Europe said they were not.  In addition, 37% of the Americans and 27% of the Europeans said they were not worried about illegal immigration either.  This, when respondents vastly overestimate the percentage of the population in their country that was born abroad.  US respondents guessed this share to be 42%, while in fact only 13% of the US population is foreign-born.  While 41 % of the Americans responded that there were ‘too many immigrants in their country’, this ratio is far lower than the 33% proportion that is foreign born in Europe.  What should be alarming for policy-makers is the following: 68% of Americans said that the US Government is doing a poor job of managing immigration, and 58 % of the Europeans felt the same way about their governments.  When asked whether ’immigrants take jobs away from native born’, 50% of the respondents in the US and 62% in European countries disagreed.  About 69% in the US and 66% in Europe agreed when asked whether ’immigrants generally help to fill jobs where there are shortages of workers’.  And when asked if ‘immigrants enrich our culture’, 69% in the US and 60 % in Europe said they do. 

Another way to get a sense of what people are thinking about migration, is the results of public referenda.  Switzerland is a semi-direct democracy and has a lot of experience with referenda, including on immigration. On February 9, the Swiss will vote on whether they would like the government to re-introduce immigration quotas. This initiative was put forward by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party.  A recent poll saw 50% of the Swiss people rejecting, and 43% in favor of this initiative, while 7% have not yet make up their mind.  In 1970, a referendum was held on the same topic, and was rejected by 55 percent of voters. If it had been accepted, the Swiss government would have had to limit the share of foreign-born workers in Switzerland to below 10% of the total work force, meaning the expulsion of 300,000 foreigners within 4 years.  

It appears that there are gaps in public perceptions on immigration.  Depending on how the question is asked, survey respondents recognize some of the benefits of immigration (though not as fully as in scientific studies).  However, often (simple) majorities are in favor of immigration. It will be interesting to see if Swiss voters will follow this pattern on February 9.


Hanspeter Wyss

Senior Program Officer, DECIG/KNOMAD, World Bank

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