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Migration’s Hall of Mirrors

LONDON – On both sides of the Atlantic, anti-immigrant politics are undermining democracies and damaging lives. Far-right nationalist parties are gaining traction in Europe, while millions of undocumented migrants suffer in the shadows. In the United States, President Barack Obama, concerned about his party’s ability to retain control of the Senate, has decided to put off immigration reform until after the election in November.

Yet that may be the wrong approach. A new public-opinion survey by the German Marshall Fund (GMF) reveals that anti-immigrant sentiment stems largely from misinformation, not entrenched animus.

The most important finding of the GMF’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.

The same was true in country after country. In the United Kingdom, 54% of respondents said that there were too many immigrants; that number fell to 31% among those who were given the facts about foreigners. In Greece, 58% became 27%; Italy went from 44% to 22%; and so on.