Americans Drastically Overestimate How Many Unauthorized Immigrants Are In The Country, And They Don't Want To Know The Truth

A blog about business and economics.
Jan. 9 2012 8:22 AM

Americans Drastically Overestimate How Many Unauthorized Immigrants Are In The Country, And They Don't Want To Know The Truth

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The sun rises in front of the Statue of Liberty before the start of a ceremonies on Liberty Island in New York on October 28, 2011 to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty.

Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

I'm very passionate about the issue of immigration as a question of substance, but I'll happily concede I don't know a ton about the politics. It turns out, however, that people are very confused about how many immigrants there are and "vastly overestimate the percentage of fellow residents who are foreign-born, by more than a factor of two, and the percentage who are in the country illegally, by a factor of six or seven." Initially that sounds like an optimistic finding. Maybe the reason my fellow Americans don't share my interest in liberalizing immigration rules is that they're mis-informed and a few facts will turn them around.

John Sides and Jack Citrin find (PDF) that this strategy almost certainly won't work:

The public is prone to overestimate the size of minority group populations. Does providing information about the actual size of populations affect attitudes towards those groups? We investigate innumeracy about immigrant populations. As in previous studies, we find that people tend to overestimate the size of the foreign-born population, and that these estimates are associated with an individual’s formal education and with the number of immigrants in the surrounding context. Then, in two different survey experiments, we test whether information about immigrants affects attitudes—either by correcting these overestimates or by priming the annual level of immigration. In both experiments, the information influenced attitudes very little. We conclude by noting the potential limits of “information effects” on mass attitudes.
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Put that in my "too bad" file. A related intuition I have that I'd be interested in reading relevant research on is that when you take the basic dynamic of population migration out of the "immigration" context, suddenly people understand it more clearly. When people hear about a town that's attracting many new residents, they say it's "booming" not that the newcomers are poaching a fixed supply of jobs. Nobody in Texas seems to have proposed trying to close the state to migrants from the Northeast and Midwest; rather, they see the state's attraction to migrants as one of its strengths. The "foreign-ness" of newcomers from other countries distracts people from fundamental dynamics that they understand in other contexts.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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