The Fear of Immigration and its Common Misconceptions

By Anelise Vaz

In late November, as the migrant caravan coming from Central America approached northern Mexico, the Trump administration announced they were prepared to send 15,000 troops to the US border, a number that would be roughly equivalent to the size of the US military’s presence in Afghanistan. The situation was portrayed as a national threat, an attempted invasion of violent criminals among which were – nonexistent – dangerous “unknown Middle Easterners”. The success of such fear mongering is just another sign of the fear of immigration that has been poisoning Western politics.

Unquestionably, every country is entitled to control the movement of people through its borders, but there is now a tendency to view immigration as something completely undesirable that should be avoided at all costs. There is an emerging national panic about the issue, and the victory of Trump, Brexit, and nationalists taking power in Italy, Hungary, Poland and Austria all confirm that. Advocates of liberal immigration are losing the debate, and that is partly because they need better arguments and policies and partly because of the massive public misperception about the issue. The logic behind the anti-immigration public discourse relies on the following assumptions: the government has lost control of the borders; immigrants will drain welfare systems; immigrants will undercut local workers; and the fear of being absorbed by alien cultures and manners.

Let us start the belief that there is a lack of control of the borders. Anyone who has ever tried to get a visa to the US or to the UK knows that the borders are very well controlled, and that there is a huge bureaucracy that makes it nearly impossible for anyone without exceptional skills or family ties to migrate legally to either country. As for the illegal option, it is even tougher, and the ones who risk such a venture suffer all the trade-offs involved, such as no access to many public services and the constant fear of being deported. This erroneous feeling that the borders are “out of control” can be largely attributed to the media. A Canadian study [1] has demonstrated that negative portrayals of immigrants in the press can dehumanize them and create a sense of a false social crisis. A similar report by the University of Oxford [2] has found that the portrayal of immigration in the news is largely negative, and “exacerbates” a level of uncertainty in public opinion around the issue in order to sell more papers. Politicians have also been widely and strategically using this uncertainty and fear in their favor. In fact, net migration in the UK is much lower than voters think. A survey conducted in 2016 by Ipsos [3] showed that the public believed that 15% of the population were non-UK EU nationals but the official number at that time was close to 5%. People also assumed that most international students remained in the country after graduating, but border checks have shown that 97% of them leave when their studies are completed. Many other opinion polls have consistently confirmed that the general public overestimate the percentage of foreigners living in the UK and have false assumptions about their impact in the economy.

The concept that immigrants cost taxpayer billions of pounds per year is pure speculations and has not been supported by official data. It is a highly debatable issue because establishing the fiscal impact of immigration is a challenge. The overall impact depends on the characteristics of individual immigrants and what they do. Young and skilled people are more likely to be working in highly-paid jobs and make a more positive net fiscal contribution to the economy and that can lead to assuming that some immigrants are “more desirable” than others. However, reports from OECD have estimated that households headed by immigrants in the UK pay more in taxes than they take in benefits [4], which means that immigrants are helping to reduce the budget deficit rather than worsening it. It is also a fact that most Western countries have ageing populations and need more migrants (and their children) to be able to sustain their economies.

 

As for immigrant “stealing” jobs, studies [5] have demonstrated that areas of the UK with large increase in EU immigration did not suffer falls in jobs and pay of UK-born workers. And although this is also very hard to establish, for the same reasons mentioned in the previous assumption, the same is probably true for all immigrants. Actually, many immigrants create new jobs and opportunities when they open businesses and increase general productivity and innovation in their areas. Besides, “jobs” is not a fixed resource that people can come and “take”. Actually, the more people there are in any economy, the more jobs will be created, because people need services and housing and businesses. Economy, markets and employment rates change because of a number of factors and blaming “immigrants” for unemployability is just as unreasonable as not acknowledging their positive contribution the economy.

In the matter of cultural objections, it is more difficult to address concerns because they are usually very personal and subjective. New-comers bring new colours and flavours to their host culture, and some will inevitably dislike it and fear that their own culture might swallowed by that of foreigners. However, the Oxford Report has also shown that people who live in places with large immigrant populations are far less likely to react negatively to immigration and to cultural differences. It is then safe to conclude that the more contact people have with “the different” the less afraid and resistant they become, and they learn to appreciate the cultural nuances that foreigners can bring into their culture while also noticing how their own culture is incorporated as immigrants adjust and integrate to the country.

 

The unreal fears of “an invasion of immigrants who are coming to take all the jobs and benefits and vanish our culture away” must be tackled not only with the facts above but also with empathy. Even in war-torn and impoverished places, it is very difficult to emigrate. People leave their homes, properties, friends and families reluctantly, abandoning their sense of belonging and the comfort of everything that is familiar to them. It is extremely difficult to relearn all the new codes of a culture, sometimes a new language, having to figure out how everything works in a new place. Some people also have to undercome extreme economic or physical duress and prejudice. Few immigrants feel completely “at home”, and this should be facilitated, if not for the many reasons in which they are valuable members of our society, for the sake of our shared humanity.

[1] Esses, V. Uncertainty, Threat, and the Role of the Media in Promoting the Dehumanization of Immigrants and Refugees. Journal of Social Issues, vol. 69, Issue 3, 2013. [2] The Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford. UK Public Opinion Toward Immigration: Overall Attitudes and level of Concern. 7 June 2018. [3] Ipsos Mori. The Perils of Perception and the EU. 9 June 2016. [4 ]OECD. The fiscal impact of immigration in OECD countries. International Migration Outlook.  [5] Wadsworth, J.et al. Brexit and the impact of immigration in the UK. Centre for economic performance. London School of Economics and Political Science, 2016.

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