Immigration in the US: 'Arizona May only Be the Beginning'

In the United States, a large number of people support a strong clampdown on immigration -- including a controversial Arizona law that allows people to be detained if they do not have proper paperwork. Political scientist Jens Hainmueller argues the debate will get more heated in the coming months.

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SPIEGEL ONLINE: Another fierce debate on immigration policy is looming in the United States. The State of Arizona just adopted a tough new anti-immigration law which allows police to stop anyone whom it suspects to be undocumented. Are Americans fed up with immigration?

Jens Hainmueller: These developments are not surprising given the historical record. The foreign born population in the US has risen dramatically in recent decades from 5 percent in 1970 to about 13 percent in 2007. That amounts to 39 million people and constitutes the highest level recorded in the census since 1930, a time when policy makers caved to public pressures and introduced new restrictions that slowed down the inflow of immigrants for decades. So the fierce immigrant debate that we currently see in Arizona may only be the beginning.

However, despite these recent developments, I think an equally harsh clampdown on immigration is unlikely today. In fact, in a recent survey experiment that I conducted with my colleague Michael Hiscox from Harvard, we find that the majority of Americans is not opposed to an increase in immigration, as long as the immigrants are highly-skilled.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So, engineers and computer programers would be more welcome in the United States?

Hainmueller: Exactly. Although more than 60 percent of Americans oppose an increase in low-skilled immigration, such as manual laborers, only 40 percent are opposed to an increase in highly skilled immigration. Somewhat strikingly, this strong preference for highly skilled immigrants is shared among all segments of society including richer and poorer respondents, respondents who live in states with fewer or more immigrants, and even respondents with low or high levels of education. This is despite the fact that highly skilled citizens may compete for jobs with highly skilled immigrants in the labor market.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Congress is starting debate on comprehensive immigration reform soon. Some members suggested focusing primarily on attracting highly qualified immigrants. Is that the way to go?

Hainmueller: Our results suggest that reform proposals that are targeted towards highly qualified immigrants will be much easier to "sell" politically, and I believe policy makers are becoming increasingly aware of this. Historically, US immigration policy has often been very sensitive to trends in public opinion.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But recent studies reveal that the qualifications of US immigrants are much more varied than often suggested. Particularly in large cities, they work in all kinds of jobs -- be it as doctors, lawyers, manual labor or whatever. Should that development not soften opposition to the influx of immigrants?

Hainmueller: To the contrary, I expect the debate to become more heated in the coming months. Despite the preference for highly skilled immigrants, the data suggests that the American public is deeply divided over how much immigration is generally good for the country. And other sticking points remain unresolved, such as the contentious issue of undocumented immigrants. These societal fissure lines will be intensified once politicians begin to mobilize voters with anti-immigrant rhetoric.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: A large chunk of economic growth in the US, however, would not be feasible without these workers from abroad.

Hainmueller: Politically, it can be very difficult to communicate these long-term benefits of immigration to voters. It tends to be much easier to mobilize voters against immigration than it is to marshal support in favor of immigration. Voters are often easily swayed by populist rhetoric that portrays immigrants as poaching jobs from native workers, burdening the welfare state and disrupting local communities. While studies have found little systematic empirical evidence for any of these claims, these campaign messages still tend to resonate well with many voters.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What conclusions can be applied to other countries, such as Germany? Is the attitude towards immigration comparable there?

Hainmueller: There is less data on this specific question outside the US case. However, some evidence points in a similar direction. For example, in a previous study we found that in Germany and all other 22 countries included in the European Social Survey there exists a strong positive correlation between citizens' education levels and support for all types of immigration. This includes support for more highly skilled immigrants from richer European and Non-European countries. So more highly educated Germans are more likely to welcome highly trained immigrants from say France or the US, even though they may compete with them in the labor market.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The German public debates are hardly encouraging, though. We all remember the " Kinder statt Inder" (Children instead of Indians) campaign, which urged Germans in 2000 to have more babies instead of attracting highly qualified immigrants from India and other countries as then Chancellor Gerhard Schröder moved to introduce a Green Card program for IT workers.

Hainmueller: Which highlights another important difference: Compared to the US, voters in Germany are generally more strongly opposed to immigration. This deep-seated skepticism makes it even easier for politicians to drum up anti-immigrant sentiment. Compared to the US -- where Latinos make up more than 25 percent of the voters in about 20 percent of US House districts -- German society as a whole has come a much longer way in appreciating the benefits of plurality.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Isn't that really counterproductive, given that Germany with its low birthrate would need immigration much more urgently than the US?

Hainmueller: The situation in Germany is akin to a demographic time bomb. Given the problems of the aging and shrinking population, virtually all experts agree that the country desperately needs to take in more immigrants to overcome severe skills shortages and rescue the social security net and pensions system. Germany also needs to better integrate its existing immigrant populations.

Interview conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz in Washington

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