Immigration has become a central battleground in our political polarization, and that division is reflected in public opinion:  About 51 percent of Americans believe immigration benefits the nation, and 49 percent disagree. Given this division, it is critical that we find ways to bridge the gap for effective discussions of immigration policy.

The 2018 “Hidden Tribes” report by More in Common explored how the nation’s various political factions approach immigration policy. For example, conservative-leaning groups tend to view immigration as an issue of law and order and focus on maintaining control over our borders. In contrast, more progressive-leaning groups tend to approach immigration through the lens of human rights and refugee protection.

Three specific psychological and behavioral principles may explain in part why groups frame these issues so differently. Understanding these dynamics is critical if we are to have more productive immigration policy discussions. For example, it might prove difficult for progressive activists to engage with conservative policymakers on immigration if they discuss the issue strictly in terms of human rights. Instead, focusing on themes more familiar to a conservative audience, such as law and order, may lead to a more fruitful debate. 

In-Group Bias

A major factor highlighted by the More in Common report was the concept of American identity and its ability to unite individuals across political beliefs. Psychologically, individuals tend to give preferential treatment to those who belong to the same “group” as they do. For example, individuals who identify with a certain political party may go along with the policy beliefs of that party because that is their “in-group.” President Trump leveraged this concept during his 2016 campaign by using phrases such as “America First” and “build the wall,” emphasizing a narrative that immigrants are harmful to the U.S. because they are outsiders. To combat this us versus them mentality, policymakers, and advocacy groups could focus more on the “American Identity” as a whole and how immigrants contribute both economically and socially to society. 

Availability Bias

The Sept. 11 attacks have had an enduring effect on the immigration debate, shifting the emphasis toward protecting national security. This view of immigration as an issue of national security persists in policy today. Greater concern for external threats has been linked to prioritizing national security, counterterrorism efforts, and support for more restrictive immigration policies.

Overestimating the risk of an event occurring because of how easily an example comes to mind is a common phenomenon referred to by behavioral economists as availability bias. In the case of 9/11, a historic event easy to recall, availability bias influences the perception of risk associated with immigration. 

In reality, an American’s chance of death from a terrorist attack caused by a refugee is 1 in 3.64 billion per year. Even smaller is an American’s chance of dying in an attack by an undocumented immigrant: 1 in 10.9 billion per year

The Identifiable Victim Effect

Research has found that individuals feel a greater sense of responsibility or willingness to help a cause if they can connect the issue to a specific, individual “victim.”  For example, a recent study examined public opinion on immigration after thousands of refugees drowned while attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. The study found that the highly publicized drowning of a 3-year-old Syrian boy had a greater impact on public sentiment than the statistics on overall refugee deaths. 

This “identifiable victim effect” has been extensively studied in the context of charitable giving, but this study is an example of its application to immigration policy. This cognitive bias could be contributing to progressives’ human rights perspective on immigration, but could also be useful in framing migration to the U.S. southern border in ways that resonate more with a conservative audience. 

Our country is severely divided, particularly on the issue of immigration. Acknowledging the different frames through which groups view immigration can help reduce the challenges of communicating across party lines. Politicians, advocacy groups, and others engaged in immigration policy discussions must identify and understand some of the behavioral factors informing immigration stances.

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