Rampell: Attitudes toward ‘immigrant hordes’ actually improving

By Catherine Rampell

Hide your wife, hide your husband, hide your child! The immigrant hordes are already here!

Or so lots of Americans believe — making it easier for politicians and fringe “alt-right” white-supremacist groups to seize on these fears and exploit them for political gain.

The share of people in the United States who were born abroad has been rising over the past several decades, reaching 13.4 percent in 2015. (The highest share recorded was in 1890, at 14.8 percent.) Perceived levels of immigration, however, are several multiples of that number and have been so for a while.

The 2013 Transatlantic Trends survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, for example, asked people across 13 countries to estimate the percentage of their national population that was born abroad.

In every country for which reliable population numbers were available, survey respondents vastly overestimated the number of foreign-born people walking among them. This was especially true in the United States.

Perhaps reflecting our nickname as a “nation of immigrants,” Americans mistakenly thought that 42 percent of people in this country had been born abroad. For those keeping score at home, that’s three times the actual immigrant population share.

Those numbers are a few years old. The imagined scourge of scary not-like-me multitudes remains.

In 2015, Ipsos MORI’s Perils of Perception survey asked a similar question in 32 countries and found similar results: Nearly everywhere, people overestimated the share of immigrants. U.S. citizens’ guesstimate for the immigrant share was lower in this survey, though, at “only” 33 percent.

Then this past fall, Ipsos MORI polled people across 39 countries about their estimates of the Muslim population.

In all but two countries, people overstated the share of their Muslim population.

In the United States, respondents said they thought about 17 percent of the country was Muslim, whereas only about 1 percent actually is.

The fact that Americans thought one-sixth of the country practices Islam is especially striking when you consider that about half of Americans say they do not personally know a Muslim, according to a poll from the Pew Research Center.

It’s not just immigrants or Muslims whose numbers are vastly inflated in the minds of fearful Americans, according to John Sides, George Washington University political science professor and co-founder of the Monkey Cage, a blog hosted by The Washington Post. Political science literature over the past 20 years has found that survey respondents tend to overestimate the size of almost any minority group, including blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans, Jews and gays.

The question is, why are these perceptions so out of whack with reality?

One possibility is that some members of these groups might be highly visible or memorable, particularly if they dress and talk differently than others in the local population. Media coverage may amplify these differences and make them more salient to the general public.

Recent research by Daniel J. Hopkins, Sides and Jack Citrin also suggests that hostility toward immigrants may drive misperceptions of their population size, rather than the other way around.

“People in general tend to believe that things that they don’t like or are anxious about are more extensive than they actually are,” says Rogers Smith, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “They think the crime rate is higher than it actually is, that we give more to foreign aid than we really do by a large margin.”

As easy as it is to blame President Trump and nativist politicians across Europe for creating these hostilities, the data suggest that outsized fears of an immigrant cultural takeover long predate these particular political leaders.

As Sides put it in a phone interview, there was already a “reservoir of negative feelings about immigration out there.” Trump just figured out how to tap into those feelings to power a successful White House bid. Before Trump came along, politicians may have been reluctant to fully exploit this negativity — maybe for moral reasons and maybe for more practical ones, such as the fact that the business community generally supports more immigration.

Of course, Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric is likely heightening those extant negative feelings too, particularly among the young.

The good news is that while a very vocal group of nativist Trumpkins is clamoring for a border wall (and even an ethnostate), attitudes toward immigration among the general populace are, on average, actually improving. Americans view immigrants more positively today than they did 20 or even five years ago, according to Pew Research Center data.

With any luck, a talented politician will soon figure out how to exploit that positivity, too.

Catherine Rampell’s email address is crampell@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

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