Polling the Public on Immigration Before They Go to the Polls
WASHINGTON -- Immigration and integration continue to be issues of paramount public concern in both the United States and Europe, and yet so rarely do we hear a transatlantic view on the common challenges faced by countries dealing with diverse immigrant populations. It is crucial to understand the views of the public on these key topics. Today marks the release of the fourth annual Transatlantic Trends: Immigration survey (TTI), which this year polled residents in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. While the survey sheds light on the internal debates in each country, there are also trends across countries and transatlantic dynamics that TTI alone captures. View country-specific findings
In 2011, one of the biggest stories in international affairs, the so-called Arab Spring, posed the specter of a direct migration challenge for countries in Europe, though in practice most migration stayed within the region and did not reach European soil. Some politicians warned of an “invasion” of migrants from the countries in North Africa and the Middle East going through political upheaval. Italy complained of a lack of European burden-sharing on the flows of migrants, with pressures most evident on the island of Lampedusa. French President Nicolas Sarkozy objected to Italy’s admission practices, and temporarily cut off entrance from Italy to avoid receiving unwanted migrants. Given the rhetoric in 2011 surrounding that migration “crisis,” the continued popularity of populist parties in many European countries, the intensification of the economic crisis and euro crisis in Europe, and continued pro-enforcement discourse in the United States, we expected to see a decline of public support for immigration. Instead, TTI shows a remarkable absence of change in views since 2010. As in previous years, about half the transatlantic public saw immigration as more of a problem than an opportunity, and, equally, about half thought there are “too many” immigrants in their countries.
Publics were increasingly unhappy with their governments’ management of immigration, however, with highest discontentment in Italy where 83 percent of respondents reported their government is doing a poor job managing immigration. The role of the European Union in migration concerns is fundamental to understanding these dynamics. The survey shows evidence of growing support for a strong European Union role in immigration issues, which has been a source of ongoing struggle on the path toward full cooperation and harmonization. On the issue of migration resulting from the Arab Spring, strong majorities in all European countries agreed that the European Union rather than the country of first arrival should be responsible. On the more general question of whether the European Union should have the power to determine countries’ national immigrant admissions numbers, support went up since 2010 in every country polled. Overall, 42 percent of Europeans polled agreed that the EU should decide national immigrant admissions numbers. The highest support was in Italy (60 percent) and Spain (51 percent). Even the U.K., where only 18 percent of respondents supported EU responsibility, showed a large increase from 12 percent in 2010. Parallel to discussions and dynamics in Europe, on the other side of the Atlantic, Americans also continued to struggle with issues surrounding governance and the appropriate level of government to address immigration. Debates rage on regarding the role of states and localities in immigration enforcement. The most recent initiative in Alabama to step up immigration enforcement is only the latest in a string of state-level moves. TTI shows signs that the U.S. public is not necessarily in favor of state-level control, and actually prefers centralized control of immigration. Fifty-four percent of U.S. respondents thought that the federal government, rather than state and local authorities, should have primary responsibility for enforcing immigration law. The public is also quite moderate in its views regarding the rights of undocumented children and youths. The public supported, at 65 percent, the provisions of the DREAM Act, which would legalize undocumented youths who successfully enter university or the U.S. military. Even a majority of Republicans surveyed, 55 percent, supported the provisions of the DREAM Act, indicating widespread bipartisan support. On another issue of hot public debate, the preservation of the Constitutional right of automatic citizenship for all people born in U.S. territory regardless of the immigration status of their parents, a majority of Americans, 53 percent, support the preservation of that right. These rather moderate views held by the U.S. public are often invisible in the extreme political discourse focused on the border fence and pro-enforcement measures.
Europe and the United States are facing many common challenges as policymakers seek to manage the consequences of the economic crisis and continue to become increasingly diverse, immigration-receiving states. It is crucial that we take a look at public opinion on these complex issues, to illuminate current debates, and inform policymakers as they design policies and build political will to move forward on issues of critical social, economic, and political importance.
Hamutal Bernstein is a Program Officer with the Immigration and Integration Program of the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.