Our complex views on immigration
Although immigrants generally are keen to integrate, opposition to immigration remains widespread in the UK. A new study confirms findings from half a century of opinion polls: the public would like to see immigration reduced. But how do members of the public define 'immigrants'? And could public opinion vary according to specific immigrant groups?
To try and build a more detailed understanding of public attitudes to immigration, researchers from the ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS) surveyed a sample of some 1,000 adults living in Britain. Findings reveal that 69 per cent of respondents favoured cuts in immigration. But the study also found that the public's views on immigration are complex in a way that previous polls have failed to capture, and that these views vary substantially depending on which immigrant groups the public is considering.
For example, more than half of respondents wanted reductions either 'only' or 'mostly' among illegal immigrants, while just over a third (35 per cent) supported reductions equally among legal and illegal immigrants. Researchers found majority support for reducing immigration of low-skilled workers (64 per cent), extended family members (58 per cent) and asylum seekers (56 per cent). However, only minority support was found for reducing immigration of high-skilled workers (32 per cent), immediate family members (41 per cent) and students (31 per cent).
What this means, researchers argue, is that preferences vary between specific groups of immigrants. And policies that respond to the overall public preference for reducing immigration without taking account of these differences may reduce immigration in ways that a majority of the public does not support. Crucially, some of the largest immigration groups generate the least opposition among members of the public (e.g. students), whereas some categories that are small in numbers generate high levels of public opposition (e.g. asylum seekers).
Members of the public and the government may be thinking about different things even when both are talking about immigration, Dr Scott Blinder concludes. "Categories such as temporary immigrants and students loom large in official statistics, but less than a third of the public has in mind either of these categories when thinking about immigrants."