Both the referendum vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s successful run for the US presidency have highlighted increasingly negative sentiments towards immigration.
One argument frequently used to explain anti-immigration sentiment is that native-born populations object to immigration because they fear competition in the labour market. If that is the case, immigrants might also oppose further immigration because they are even more likely to compete with more recent immigrants in the labour market than natives. In a recent research paper, we decided to look at the evidence for what immigrants in Britain actually think about immigration.
Results taken from UK Citizenship Surveys between 2007 and 2010, suggest that 71% of all respondents were opposed to further immigration – a statistic which rises to 83% for only those who were born in the UK.
When we looked at the position of immigrants, we found that overall nearly 50% were opposed to further immigration. But this proportion rises to 53% for immigrants who have lived in the UK for over five years, and falls to 33% for more recent immigrants.
Not just about jobs
We found that employment status was not associated with the views of immigrants or natives towards further immigration. While you could expect unemployed people to be more opposed to further immigration than the employed, we found no significant difference between these groups. This suggests that opposition towards immigration is not primarily driven by labour market concerns.
Among recent immigrants, different income groups had different attitudes towards immigration – and the poorest and richest groups were the most supportive of further immigration. Among people born in the UK and earlier immigrants, it was only the richest who were most likely to support further immigration. These complex patterns suggest that views towards immigration are not driven by straightforward economic concerns.
However, being affected by economic shocks seems to be important for determining attitudes towards further immigration. We found both native-born people and immigrants who had reported suffering economic worries in the past, such as job losses, drops in income, or who had been forced to cut back on luxuries or necessities, were more likely to be opposed to further immigration. This was even the case if we took their current income levels into account, meaning economic perceptions seemed to matter more than current economic circumstances when it came to feelings about future immigration.
Longer stay, harder line
One of our main findings was that immigrants who have been living in the UK for over five years hold views towards immigration that are similar to those held by UK-born people. And that the socio-economic factors associated with the strength of opposition towards immigration are also similar between UK-born people and these established immigrants.
We suggest that there are two main reasons for this. First, that these views reflect increasing integration into British society. Immigrants integrate into their host society and it is quite possible that they start to hold the views and values of the native community. Indeed, such assimilation patterns have been seen by others.
Second, there is a self-selection effect, meaning that the composition of earlier immigrants is different to that of more recent immigrants. Immigrants who hold views that are similar to UK-born people, or those more likely to integrate, are the immigrants who are most likely to live in a host country for a long time. So, on average, the immigrants who stay hold views that are closer to the host population because those immigrants who leave are the ones who are different.
Not all anti-immigration sentiment is the same as xenophobia or motivated by concerns about culture. After all, it may make little sense for immigrants to oppose future immigration on these grounds. Both people born in the UK and immigrants can be opposed to further immigration and these views will be complex and multi-dimensional. Some, for example, might be concerned about future labour market competition, others might worry about public services or housing.
The immigration debate is multi-faceted. But what’s particularly concerning in our findings, particularly in the context of economic policies focused on austerity, is that economic shocks can be linked to anti-immigration sentiments. These factors highlight some of the driving forces behind anti-immigration views, which played a large role in both the referendum and the US presidential elections.