3. Preferences for changing the number of immigrants coming to the UK
Shifting away from the question of perceptions, the next section of the survey examined whether members of the public prefer to see particular types of immigration reduced, kept the same, or increased. The goal was to see whether, and to what extent, public preferences for changing levels of immigration applied differently to different groups of immigrants. It might be that attitudes toward most groups of immigrants are fairly similar, and that findings about the acceptance of immigrant doctors and nurses (Transatlantic Trends 2011) are truly exceptional cases. On the other hand, there might be important differences in how major groups of immigrants are viewed.
Students, for example, have become crucial to policy proposals and debates, but we know very little about whether reducing student immigration will satisfy public demand for less immigration – indeed, in the previous section we found that less than a third of our respondents reported thinking of students when they normally think about immigrants.
The survey asked about preferences for reducing, increasing, or not changing immigration defined in three different ways: by legal status, length of stay, and reason for migrating.
Although policy debates usually revolve around the terms for legal immigration, some evidence suggests that illegal immigration is a more widespread concern among members of the public. In a 2010 survey, 71% said that they were “worried” about illegal immigration, twice as many as the 35% who were worried about legal immigration (Transatlantic Trends 2011). Deporting more illegal immigrants, along with a cap on immigration, ranked as the two most popular of several possible means of slowing population growth in a Sun/YouGov poll (2010). Like these prior surveys, we asked about “illegal immigrants” simply because it seems to be the term most understood by members of the public and most used in non-specialist public discourse.
All respondents were asked for their views on illegal immigration, but questions were phrased differently depending on each respondent’s attitudes to immigration overall. Those who prefer less immigration overall were asked whether they would like to see reduced immigration “only” or “mostly” among illegal immigrants, equally among both groups, or “only” or “mostly” among legal immigrants.
Results show that a majority of those favouring reduced immigration are more focused on illegal than legal immigration. Among those who want overall immigration reduced, a majority (54%) said that they would like reductions either “only” (28%) or “mostly” (26%) among illegal immigrants. Just over a third (35%) supported reductions equally among legal and illegal immigrants.
Those in favour of increased or constant levels of immigration were asked a different version of the question. They were asked if they support reducing illegal immigration even though they do not wish to reduce immigration overall. Results indicate widespread support for reducing illegal immigration, even among this group that did not wish to see immigration reduced overall. Among respondents who wish to see the overall level of immigration kept the same or increased, a clear majority (61%) nonetheless prefer to see illegal immigration reduced, and 39% felt strongly about this preference.
We don’t know how members of the public understand the term “illegal immigrant.” The definition of illegal immigration and even the term itself are matters of controversy. We also do not know whether the survey responses above are driven simply by greater opposition to illegal rather than legal immigration, or if overestimation of the relative size of the illegal immigrant population plays a role. Recent evidence suggests that many members of the public believe that a great deal of immigration is illegal – in one 2010 survey, 38% in one 2010 survey said that most immigrants are in Britain illegally (Transatlantic Trends 2011). Of course, even experts have limited knowledge of the size of the illegal immigrant population, but the best available estimates suggest that legal immigrants outnumber illegal immigrants by about ten to one. (Gordon and colleagues  estimated a population of illegal or “irregular” immigrants in the UK and their UK-born children of 417,000 to 863,000 [central estimate 618,000] at the end of 2007. This contrasts with the estimated stock of 6.5 million total immigrants in the UK for 2007 and almost 2 million in London (Rienzo and Vargas-Silva 2011)
The difference between permanent and temporary immigration has grown in policy relevance in 2011, as the coalition government seeks ways to “break the link” between shorter-term migration and permanent UK residence in order increase out-flows and thus reduce net-migration. We find that more people prefer to reduce permanent immigration than temporary immigration. As Figure 7 shows, 57% support reductions to permanent immigration (38% ‘reduced a lot’), while 47% support reducing temporary immigration (10% ‘a lot’).
Our next set of questions asks about migrants by reason for migration, dividing several of the main groups into subgroups. Previous research suggests that certain sub-groups of migrants are particularly unwelcome, while others are more likely to be tolerated or even encouraged in at least one case (doctors and nurses) (Transatlantic Trends 2011, Ipsos MORI/UKBA 2009). Policy changes, too, have made such distinctions, for example by insulating university students from efforts to reduce the number of international students, and by the “exceptional talent” visa.
On the other hand, if the aim of immigration policy is defined by a numerical goal, then each person is weighted equally — or, if the goal is defined by net-migration, then each person who will stay in Britain is weighted equally. But how do members of the British public feel about this? Are they more inclined to make distinctions among migrants according to why they are coming, and what they will do in Britain? Or does a concern with numbers take precedence over these finer distinctions?
Research on public opinion in general often finds that, for many policy issues, members of the public do not have detailed or nuanced views. Immigration, however, might well be different. It has been a highly salient issue for years, and many aspects of immigration have been covered frequently in mass media and subjected to intense political and policy debate. What we discovered may be surprising, both for understanding the distinctions that did matter to people, and for some that did not.
The results suggest noteworthy differences in public attitudes toward asylum seekers, workers, students, and family members. Asylum seekers remain one of the least popular groups of migrants, with a majority (56%) favouring reductions (38% ‘reduced a lot). Respondents did not have the opportunity to differentiate attitudes toward asylum seekers perceived to have legitimate claims, and those who perceived not to have legitimate claims. Prior polling has done this, however, and has shown that the perceived legitimacy of claims matters a great deal to public opinion. In an Ipsos MORI poll in Feburary 2011, 65% said that Britain should accept fewer asylum seekers, but clear majorities of those same respondents agreed that “we must protect refugees who need a place of safety in Britain” (64%) and that “we must protect genuine asylum seekers who need a place of safety in Britain” (73%).
* The survey responses presented in Figure 8 are all from question 8 in Appendix A except for responses about high and low-skilled workers which are from question 9 in Appendix A.
Students generate less opposition, with about a third of respondents favouring reductions to each of three types of students that we asked about (15% - 19% ‘reduced a lot’). Respondents were asked separately about three types of students: university students, English language school students, and further education students. Results showed no statistically significant differences in the level of opposition to immigration by each of these three groups. Even though recent policies and debates have hinged on distinctions between different types of educational institutions, these distinctions did not make any detectable difference in public opinion.
When considering immigration based on work or family reasons, on the other hand, public opinion very much depended on further details about the precise type of immigration at stake. For family members, we asked separately about immediate family members (defined as husbands, wives, partners, and children under age 18) and extended family members (exemplified by grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and children over age 18). This distinction turned out to be a relevant one in public opinion: while 41% favoured reductions to immigration by immediate family members, 58% did so for extended family members. Indeed, extended family members were about as likely as asylum seekers to be rejected by members of the public, while there was not majority support for reducing immediate family members’ immigration.
When considering labour migration, members of the public are more likely to want to reduce the number of low-skilled than high-skilled immigrants, both when asked about skill levels in general, and when asked about immigrants in particular high- and low-skilled occupations. In general terms, 64% support reducing immigration among “most low-skilled workers”, compared with 32% for “most high-skilled workers.” Indeed, of all the sub-groups we asked about, low-skilled immigrants generated the most support for reduction. In contrast, high-skilled immigrants—on a par with international students—were the most likely to be accepted.
The picture remained the same for questions about specific occupations representing high, medium, and low levels of skills: business and finance professionals, scientists and researchers; IT specialists and elderly care workers; and construction labourers and restaurant staff. (Occupation titles were chosen to reflect different skill levels according to SOC codes.) The results followed skill levels, though not perfectly. Opposition was most common for construction labourers (57% for reducing) and restaurant staff (58%). Next were IT specialists (41%), care workers (40%), and the higher-skilled business and finance professionals (40%), while scientists and researchers generated the least opposition (30% for reducing, and 24% for increasing, the highest number we registered for any subgroup).
A key finding emerging from the responses to the above set of questions is that public support for reducing immigration was higher on the initial, general question about immigration as a whole than for any single category we asked about, with one critical exception: illegal immigration. While 69% of our sample wish to see immigration reduced, there was less support for reducing immigration even of low-skilled immigrants, the least popular subgroup of legal immigrants in our survey.
These findings suggest that many members of the public have more complex views about reducing immigration than can be detected by a simple yes or no question. While about a third of the public supports reducing immigration even for the most popular types of migrants (students, high skilled workers), and a somewhat smaller group do not wish to reduce immigration at all, the rest of the population makes finer-grained distinctions that are disguised in simple questions about overall numbers.