Mi­gra­tion’s hall of mir­rors

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

On both sides of the At­lantic, an­ti­im­mi­grant 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 an­ti­im­mi­grant 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.

The only coun­tries with­out such a gap were those with ei­ther very lit­tle im­mi­gra­tion, like Poland, or those with a more open, in­formed, and pro­gres­sive po­lit­i­cal de­bate about im­mi­gra­tion, like Swe­den and Ger­many.

Other sur­veys have ex­posed ex­tra­or­di­nary in­ac­cu­ra­cies in per­cep­tions of mi­grants. In many de­vel­oped coun­tries, for ex­am­ple, the pub­lic be­lieves that there are three times as many im­mi­grants re­sid­ing in their coun­try as there re­ally are. The av­er­age Bri­ton be­lieves that 34% of UK res­i­dents are for­eign­ers; the true num­ber is just 11%.

Such dis­tor­tions dis­ap­pear in coun­tries where mi­gra­tion chal­lenges are con­fronted openly, dis­cussed rea­son­ably, and ad­dressed with con­vic­tion. The av­er­age Swede, for ex­am­ple, be­lieves that 18% of the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion is com­posed of mi­grants; the ac­tual num­ber is close to 13%. As a re­sult, pop­ulism in th­ese so­ci­eties is not on the rise, and main­stream politi­cians do not vil­ify mi­nori­ties and mi­grants.

This con­sti­tutes strong ev­i­dence that re­al­ity-based de­bate and pol­i­cy­mak­ing can fun­da­men­tally trans­form the neg­a­tive po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics gen­er­ated by mi­gra­tion. It also sug­gests that, by fail­ing to en­gage vot­ers on the re­al­ity of mi­gra­tion, main­stream politi­cians in Europe are man­u­fac­tur­ing support for ex­trem­ist par­ties. This self­in­flicted po­lit­i­cal wound is ex­tremely dan­ger­ous.

The Transat­lantic Trends survey also shows that the Amer­i­can pub­lic is not wor­ried about le­gal mi­gra­tion, while around twothirds be­lieve that the chil­dren of im­mi­grants are be­ing well in­te­grated into their com­mu­ni­ties. Th­ese find­ings should em­bolden pol­i­cy­mak­ers to be more proac­tive in de­sign­ing path­ways for le­gal mi­gra­tion and poli­cies to in­te­grate mi­grants.

Even when it comes to il­le­gal im­mi­grants, though US cit­i­zens ex­press con­cern, they are more rea­son­able than their po­lit­i­cal lead­ers about how to solve the prob­lem. A plu­ral­ity of Americans sur­veyed by the GMF, for ex­am­ple, said that il­le­gal im­mi­grants should be al­lowed to ob­tain le­gal sta­tus.

A de­lib­er­a­tive ap­proach to en­gag­ing the pub­lic on other as­pects of mi­gra­tion also could help quell anti-mi­grant sen­ti­ment. For ex­am­ple, re­cent re­search in sev­eral coun­tries shows that im­mi­grants as a whole con­trib­ute more eco­nom­i­cally to their com­mu­ni­ties than they take from them. In Ger­many, a study by the Ber­tels­mann Foun­da­tion, to be re­leased next month, shows that the net fis­cal con­tri­bu­tion per mi­grant amounted to 3,300 euros in 2012. Such data up­end the con­ven­tional wis­dom that mi­grants are a drain on pub­lic ser­vices.

Of course, mi­gra­tion cre­ates real chal­lenges for com­mu­ni­ties and can lead to job losses and lower wages for na­tive work­ers. But here, too, it is the ab­sence of at­ten­tion to th­ese is­sues, not nec­es­sar­ily the pres­ence of mi­grants, that is the prob­lem.

Im­ple­ment­ing vig­or­ous re­train­ing poli­cies, for ex­am­ple, would be a bet­ter way to counter th­ese ad­verse ef­fects than call­ing for mass de­por­ta­tions. This is one rea­son why la­bor unions, which once op­posed im­mi­gra­tion across the board, are now far more sup­port­ive of mea­sures that would le­galise un­doc­u­mented work­ers and cre­ate more path­ways for mi­gra­tion.

In­formed pub­lic de­bate is the sine qua non of a demo­cratic polity. In its ab­sence, bias and pop­ulism pre­vail. The im­mi­gra­tion de­bate will never be an easy one, but it can be­come less ten­den­tious and more de­lib­er­a­tive if its par­tic­i­pants con­sider the facts.

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