5. Further Research
As with any research project, this study is a contribution to the debate, rather than the last word on the subject. As such, we conclude by noting questions for further research that follow from this report’s findings.
In keeping with prior findings (Transatlantic Trends 2011), we found that legal status of immigrants matters greatly for public opinion. But how broadly or narrowly does the public perceive “illegal immigrants”? Do members of the public usually envision clandestine border-crossing? Or does the image of illegality include those who entered legally but overstayed their right to remain, or violate conditions of their stay (by, for example, working more hours than they are permitted to work on the terms of a student visa)? Finally, do members of the public understand “illegal immigrant” as referring strictly to the violation of immigration law, or does the term bring up associations with criminality in general?
A majority of those who prefer less immigration said they would like to see “only” or “mostly” illegal immigration reduced. But this too raises further questions. Does this pattern come from overestimation (i.e. supporting reduced illegal immigration because that is where the numbers are high)? Or does it come more from a value-based decision that illegal immigration is simply wrong, whereas legal immigration is not so morally troubling?
Second, the survey found mismatches between public opinion and available policy tools for reducing particular types of immigration. But how would members of the public resolve such dilemmas, if they were presented with a scenario in which their preferred ways of reducing immigration were not practical, given legal and political constraints and better data on the numbers of immigrants in different groups? How many would choose to reduce immigration in other ways (for example, by deciding that it is fine to reduce student immigration even if they hadn’t initially preferred to)? How many would take the opposite approach, deciding to tolerate higher levels of overall immigration rather than revising their attitudes toward immigrant sub-groups? Public opinion research rarely gathers data about the choices people would make in the face of policy trade-offs (Blinder 2011), but it is certainly possible in principle. Indeed, when asked to make trade-offs explicitly, public attitudes can turn out to be more consistent than often imagined (Hansen 1998).
Finally, our questions about the most prevalent implicit conceptions of immigrants raise questions about where these conceptions come from, and why they do not always match up with the actual numbers of immigrants in particular categories. The Migration Observatory plans to undertake research on media and politicians’ portrayals of immigration that may provide some clues as to the origins of public perceptions of who immigrants are.