Poll offers perspective on a polarized immigration debate
WASHINGTON -- In 2010, Nicolas Sarkozy dismantled camps of Roma migrants in France, Barack Obama’s Justice Department sued Arizona over a law targeting illegal immigrants, and far-right parties across Europe gained traction by stoking xenophobic sentiment. Though polarizing headlines abounded, it behooves governments to pay attention to what the public is actually saying on immigration and integration. Today marks the release of the third-annual Transatlantic Trends: Immigration survey, which polled residents of large migrant-receiving countries in the West, including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain.
While the survey sheds light on the internal debates in each country, there is a transatlantic story to tell as well. Among the countries surveyed, the lingering effects of the economic crisis -- particularly unemployment -- has been on the minds of the public. Transatlantic Trends: Immigration shows that the economic crisis has had some effect on how people perceive labor-market competition from immigrants. In Europe, 49% of those whose household economic situation got worse in 2010 believed that immigrants bring down the wages of native-born workers; this compared to 36% of those whose economic situation got better or stayed the same in 2010. In the United States, those whose personal finances deteriorated last year were also more likely to say that immigrants take jobs away from native-born workers. What does this mean for attitudes about immigration policy? Increasing anxiety about job competition will affect the ability of governments to (re)shape labor migration programs.
The coalition government in Britain has already promised to lower net migration to the “tens of thousands,” and an immigration overhaul in the United States will be even more difficult in these conditions, as implications for the American labor market are obvious. In addition to worries about the economy, the integration of migrants, particularly Muslims and their children, has been front-page news in Europe. The survey fieldwork was done in 2010, the year of banning face-covering veils for women in France and the rise of Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands, which relies on an anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic agenda. Discussions in Germany last summer centered on a controversial book by Thilo Sarrazin, a former Board Member of the German Bundesbank. The book, entitled “Germany Does Itself In,” argued that the Muslim -- primarily Turkish -- community in Germany was bringing the country down by failing to integrate.
In the survey, respondents in all countries were asked how well they perceived Muslim immigrants to be integrating into their society. In Europe on average, 58% of respondents said that they were integrating poorly, with only one-third (33%) saying they were integrating well. The most pessimistic about Muslim integration were Spanish and Germans respondents, 70% and 67% of who, respectively, said that Muslim immigrants were not integrating well. On this issue in particular, there was a clear transatlantic divide. Whereas Europeans were clearly pessimistic overall about the extent to which Muslim immigrants were integrated into their societies, a plurality of both Americans and Canadians (45% in each country) answered that Muslim immigrants were integrating well. Tellingly, 14% of Americans did not even answer the question, claiming that they did not know how well Muslims were integrating into American society.
The optimism of North Americans on Muslim integration, therefore, may have something to do with the relative scarcity of Muslim immigrants and the lack of discussions about integration in the media. The one common thread among respondents in all countries regarding Muslim integration, however, is a universal perception that the second-generation, or the children of Muslim immigrants, are integrating better than their parents. A plurality of 49% of Europeans as well as 62% of Americans and 66% of Canadians claimed that the native-born children of Muslim migrants were integrating well into their societies. Though changing economic situations and specific debates about integration appear to have some relationship to public attitudes about immigration, in some ways overall perceptions remain fairly constant.
Despite the drastic changes in economic and political landscapes over the past three years, perceptions about whether immigration is more of a problem or more of an opportunity for each country have remained fairly constant, whether positive or negative. For example, around two-thirds of British respondents consistently say that immigration is more of a problem, whereas around half of Americans and only one quarter of Canadians agree. These entrenched perceptions may mean that governments will have less room to maneuver when changing immigration or integration policy, but it also means that they have at least one constant on which to depend. For an issue as fast-moving and controversial as immigration, that, at least, could be a blessing.
Delancey Gustin is a Program Associate with the Immigration and Integration Program of the German Marshall Fund in Washington.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.