Persuading People on Immigration is Hard but Here’s What Can be Done

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Many individuals and organisations are rightly advocating for more open immigration policies, driven by the belief that immigration is generally beneficial for all parties involved. Yet, despite these well-intentioned efforts, many voters remain sceptical about increasing immigration flows. Understanding why these attempts to shift public opinion often fall short is crucial.

This is the question that I and my co-authors, Dillon Laaker and Cassidy Reller, tried to answer in our recent research. Our study was motivated by the observation that, while many practitioners find it difficult to sway people’s views on the issue, immigration scholars usually assume these views are flexible. To resolve this puzzle, we conducted the first comprehensive assessment of the stability and change of immigration attitudes across different receiving countries and times. Importantly, unlike most previous studies that looked at the public opinion changes in the aggregate, we considered nine panel datasets that tracked the same individuals over time and measured their opinions on various aspects of immigration policy.

What We Did and What We Found

Our study used several methods to assess the stability and change in immigration attitudes. We started with a very straightforward test comparing the share of respondents who articulate similar immigration views throughout time in various surveys. Depending on the survey and the time passed, we found that 71 to 94 percent of respondents did not change their opinion much. In some particularly long-running surveys like the Swiss Household Panel, most respondents even reported the same pro-immigration or anti-immigration stance after a decade.

We then combined multiple survey questions to estimate people’s underlying immigration attitudes and used various statistical models to reduce the impact of potential measurement errors related to people’s misunderstanding of survey questions. These tests confirmed our main finding that immigration attitudes are stable even in the face of major economic and political disruptions.

The stability of immigration attitudes is particularly remarkable given that the time covered by our surveys includes the global recession, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the refugee crisis. In other words, we demonstrate that immigration attitudes are not very sensitive to changes in economic conditions, migration flows, or political environments. This finding is further corroborated by another recent paper I co-authored with James Dennison and Andrew Geddes, which reveals that even the COVID-19 pandemic, despite halting most global immigration, has had minimal impact on people’s views on the issue.

Why are immigration attitudes stable? Our paper offers several possible explanations, but most of all, our research supports the central role of socialization and deep-seated predispositions. For most people, their stance on immigration policy simply reflects their early life experiences and personality traits such as openness to experience or ethnocentrism. In this respect, we also find that younger individuals are more likely to adjust their views on immigration than older people, providing evidence for the long-standing idea of the “impressionable years.”

At the same time, our study calls into question the decisive role of (mis)information and contextual factors. We find that these theories only explain a small amount of the differences in attitudes. While big political events may shift people’s views on particular immigration issues in the short term, these changes are small and they eventually revert back to people’s initial beliefs.

What Our Findings Imply for Persuasion Efforts

The stability of immigration views we observe is closely linked to the broader persuasion discussion about whether people’s beliefs persist throughout one’s life or whether people can be reliably swayed by new information or evolving circumstances. Our research supports the idea that people’s stances on immigration and other policies are formed when they are young adults, and these general stances remain consistent as they age.

These findings also have important implications for how we understand the rise of populism. Contrary to what some might expect, changing immigration attitudes cannot explain the recent rise of populist radical right parties. Rather than changing people’s policy views on immigration themselves, external events such as a refugee crisis may increase the importance of the issue to some voters. When immigration is a low-salience issue, voters who dislike immigration may still vote for parties with pro-immigration positions. However, when the salience of immigration increases, it can become a key voting issue benefiting the electoral fortunes of the populist right.

Our findings suggest that simply providing facts and changing how we talk about immigration won’t necessarily make people more pro-immigration. However, there’s a silver lining: it’s also difficult for any communication strategy to make people more anti-immigration. Even when populist politicians use their campaigns to stir up fears against immigrants, they can mostly increase the importance of the issue among those who already hold anti-immigration views.

In this respect, instead of trying to convince sceptics that immigration is good, pro-immigration advocates may also try to convince those who are already sympathetic that immigration is important. While I explore one such possibility in my ongoing research, immigration scholars and persuasion practitioners can certainly benefit from identifying more ways to change people’s issue priorities rather than just their deeply held beliefs.

Why Persuasion Is Still Possible

Our evidence does not necessarily imply that people can’t change their minds in the longer term. Policymakers and advocates can and should absolutely try to change minds by meeting voters where they are and compromising on particular immigration reforms that can appeal to voters. As shown by many studies, for instance, most people are already persuaded—or pre-suaded—that skilled economic immigration should be open. They do not have to be convinced of this by any information campaign—they already accept such immigration as legitimate.

My most recent research shows that this is also true for most other forms of selective immigration that are straightforwardly beneficial to receiving country from the immigration of immediate relatives and students to bilateral labor agreements. Governments can convince their constituents that more open immigration is good in general, but they have to consistently implement policies that are explicitly and straightforwardly beneficial to citizens. When voters are confident that their government is managing immigration in their interest, they can support freer immigration in general, including for those fleeing adversity.


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