Who favors open borders?

The World Values Survey records quite a bit of information about public opinion related to immigration. I’d like to do in-depth analysis of it at some point. Here are a few things I’ve noted so far (no rich statistical analysis yet though):

  • Young people worldwide are more favorable to open borders, but the effect is very slight. There is no sign– yet– that generational change will tilt the world towards open borders.
  • Children of immigrants are somewhat more favorable to immigration.
  • There seems to be NO correlation worldwide between attitudes towards immigration policy and self-positioning on the left-right spectrum. (This surprised me.)
  • There seems to be no correlation between social class and attitudes towards immigration policy, unless it’s that the middle classes are a bit more favorable.
  • Correlations with life satisfaction are weak; however, the most strongly restrictionist attitudes seem to be more common among people leaning towards dissatisfaction with their lives.
  • People who trust foreigners “completely” are more favorable to a welcoming immigration policy (well, duh), yet 13% of those who don’t trust foreigners at all still say “let anyone come.”
  • People who don’t want immigrants as neighbors are more likely to favor strict limits on or prohibition of immigration (58%, to 42% of those who don’t mind immigrant neighbors) but some of these, too, favor “letting anyone come.”
  • No difference between men and women.

There are large differences across countries in attitudes towards immigration policy. Only 48 countries seem to be covered by the survey, but among those, two-thirds have public opinion more favorable to immigration than the United States, as measured by the share saying “let anyone come.” In particular, Mexican attitudes towards immigration policy are more liberal than Americans’. Some commenters at this site have suggested Asia as an example of a more restrictionist society that nativist Americans might desire to emulate. The WVS data suggest that this is true at the level of public opinion: Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Malaysia have some of the lowest shares of open borders supporters in the world, though in the terms of the number favoring “strict limits” or more, South Koreans are more liberal on immigration than Americans are.

What I find most interesting in the international data is that some developing countries have far more favorable attitudes towards immigration than any rich country. In Vietnam, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, and Ethiopia, nearly half the population favors letting anyone come. India has an unusually large number of open borders supporters as well, though it is also tied for highest in terms of the number of people supporting complete prohibition of immigration. Several countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America also seem to have more open borders supporters than any of the rich countries, except Sweden, which appears to be an outlier, with a far more pro-open borders populace of any rich country included in the survey.

Country Let anyone come As long as jobs available Strict limits Prohibit

1

Vietnam

49%

27%

22%

1%

2

Burkina Faso

43%

45%

10%

1%

3

Rwanda

41%

48%

8%

2%

4

Ethiopia

40%

28%

27%

5%

5

Mali

34%

46%

16%

4%

6

Morocco

28%

41%

20%

11%

7

Romania

23%

42%

23%

11%

8

Uruguay

23%

56%

17%

3%

9

Peru

23%

50%

21%

6%

10

India

23%

22%

25%

30%

11

Ukraine

21%

53%

19%

7%

12

China

20%

51%

21%

8%

13

Ghana

18%

39%

36%

6%

14

Sweden

18%

54%

27%

1%

15

Guatemala

17%

55%

21%

7%

16

Argentina

15%

45%

34%

6%

17

Serbia

14%

26%

46%

14%

18

Bulgaria

13%

55%

24%

8%

19

Moldova

13%

50%

26%

11%

20

Poland

12%

35%

46%

6%

21

Mexico

12%

45%

25%

17%

22

Zambia

11%

30%

44%

15%

23

Brazil

9%

47%

33%

11%

24

Georgia

9%

19%

56%

16%

25

Finland

9%

40%

48%

3%

26

Turkey

9%

43%

27%

21%

27

Italy

8%

49%

37%

6%

28

Canada

8%

51%

39%

2%

29

Spain

8%

48%

42%

3%

30

Slovenia

7%

56%

29%

8%

31

Germany

7%

43%

45%

5%

32

USA

7%

37%

49%

8%

33

Chile

6%

50%

35%

9%

34

Cyprus

6%

36%

51%

7%

35

S Africa

6%

16%

48%

30%

36

Switzerland

6%

67%

26%

1%

37

Indonesia

6%

15%

72%

8%

38

Andorra

5%

72%

22%

1%

39

Egypt

5%

25%

43%

26%

40

Thailand

5%

16%

65%

14%

41

Norway

4%

53%

42%

1%

42

Trinidad And Tobago

4%

32%

55%

10%

43

Australia

3%

54%

41%

2%

44

S Korea

3%

56%

36%

5%

45

Japan

3%

42%

50%

5%

46

Taiwan

3%

30%

58%

9%

47

Jordan

2%

28%

46%

25%

48

Malaysia

2%

8%

72%

18%

 

Another very interesting pattern emerged when I dug down into the data involving religion. When asked “How important is God in your life?” on a scale of 1 to 10, about half the respondents answered “10” and half answered something less.  I was distressed to discover that those for whom God was very important in their lives seemed to have less favorable attitudes towards immigration. But when I broke it down by religious demonination, I found something different. While Muslims who regard God as very important in their lives tend to be more restrictionist, Christians of each denomination are more likely to support open borders if they are strongly in touch with God, as shown in the table below (which includes all denominations for which there were over 500 observations in the WVS dataset):

 

How important is God in your life? (scale: 1-10)
Religious Denomination <10 10
Roman Catholic 9% 15%
Protestant 7% 15%
Evangelical 7% 11%
Orthodox 13% 19%
Church of Sweden 16% 19%
Muslim 19% 13%
Buddhist 7% 9%
Ancestor worship 44% 57%
Hindu 12% 15%

 

The percentage in each cell represents the share of respondents saying “Let anyone come.” Note that it is not the case that Christians are more supportive of open borders in general. Many factors affect support for open borders, and it seems that public opinion in rich countries is often less favorable to open borders. And of course most rich countries are nominally/historically Christian. So Muslims are actually more likely than most Christian denominations to favor open borders. But within each Christians denomination, there is a statistically significant (though fairly small) positive correlation between rating God’s importance in one’s life “10” and advocating “let anyone come.”

The World Values Survey requested this citation: EUROPEAN AND WORLD VALUES SURVEYS FOUR WAVE INTEGRATED DATA FILE, 1981-2004, v.20060423, 2006. The European Values Study Foundation (www.europeanvaluesstudy.eu) and World Values Survey Association (www.worldvaluessurvey.org).

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

26 thoughts on “Who favors open borders?”

  1. Malaysia’s position here really surprises me, as I have never had the feeling that Malaysians are unusually anti-immigrant or anti-immigration compared to other countries. Hate crimes are rare in Malaysia (arguably because the last time race rioting occurred on a mass scale, it shook the entire country to its core), and although racist sentiment exists, it’s not to me remarkable compared to what I’ve seen in other countries. There are a lot of immigrants in Malaysia (about 3 million or 10% of the total population, about 1 million of whom are present unlawfully). Even when people talk about reducing immigration rates there tends to be a tacit acceptance that it’s impossible to seriously cut them down.

    I would love to see where Singapore comes in on this ranking. Singapore and Malaysia are I think still culturally and historically close enough that they represent an interesting experiment. Singapore I would have expected to come in about where Malaysia ranks on this scale, because my impression is there is more anti-immigrant sentiment in Singapore, at least that is expressed publicly, compared to Malaysia. Considering how diverse Malaysia is and how our history is devoted to teaching us so much about our roots in immigration I would not have expected us to come in as more restrictionist than Japan.

    Australia’s also an interesting case, considering how many immigrants they have. Again, wonder where New Zealand comes in on this scale. Too bad this survey seems limited in its reach.

  2. A glance at the table shows there’s a moderately high correlation between holding theoretical open borders views and living in the kind of country that nobody in their right minds wants to immigrate to.

    Here’s your top ten most pro-Open Borders countries:

    Vietnam, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Mali, Morocco, Romania, Uruguay, Peru, India.

    Yup, those are some real high desirability countries.

  3. By the way, I don’t see Israel mentioned in this list. Anybody want to estimate the odds that Israel would be the most anti-“let anyone come” country on earth? The government of Israel doesn’t use the term “undocumented worker,” it uses the term “illegal infiltrator.”

    Here are the most anti-immigration countries off your list:

    Egypt

    Thailand

    Norway

    Trinidad And Tobago

    Australia

    S Korea

    Japan

    Taiwan

    Jordan

    Malaysia

    Basically, these are countries that have a lot to lose and are in more danger of losing it.

    South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan are rich, competent, nationalist NE Asian countries. Norway and Australia are rich whitopias. Trinidad is the richest country in its region due to oil, and it already has a lot of ethnic tensions that doesn’t need augmented. Thailand and Malaysia are among the richest countries in their regions, with poor, heavily populated neighbors such as Burma, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

    Egypt and Jordan are interesting. I suspect their attitudes are similar to Israel’s, and for the same reasons.

    1) None of those three countries wants the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. They all remember what happened when Jordan kicked out the Palestinians in 1970 and they moved to Lebanon: that upset Lebanon’s delicate balance of power and 15 years of civil war ensued.

    2) Egypt, Jordan, and Israel are all on the land route from sub-Saharan Africa to the rich North. They would all be overrun with sub-Saharans. Middle Easterners notice how Col. Qaddafi’s policy of inviting in large numbers of sub-Saharans did _not_ improve his popularity with native Libyans.

    1. “Norway and Australia are rich whitopias.”

      Norway has huge oil revenues that it doesn’t want to share, and neighboring Sweden is super-pro-immigrant. Australia’s immigrants are quite high skill and it has almost a quarter of its population foreign-born.

    2. Some interesting add-ons from a Malaysian perspective:

      1. Depending on how you define “immigrant”, 40 to 95% of Malaysians are immigrants or descended from immigrants
      2. 10% of the Malaysian population (3 million out of about 30 million) are immigrants; 3% (1 million) are unlawfully present
      3. Anti-immigrant or -immigration sentiment is relatively rare in public debate, at least compared to neighbouring Singapore
      4. There is a substantial Malaysian diaspora (at least 1 million, though most believe the number is rather higher)
      5. It’s virtually impossible to avoid immigrants in day-to-day Malaysian life (immigrants work in almost any service job you can name in urban areas)

      Honestly, I find Malaysia’s position on this list hard to believe. Stranger cognitive dissonances have happened I suppose.

      1. Forgot to add that it’s an extremely common “middle Malaysian” aspiration to work and/or study overseas. The norm for middle-class Malaysians of above average educational aptitude is to study somewhere like Australia and stay on to work there for at least a few years if not longer. Honestly I would say virtually everything Malaysian in my bones makes me more pro-open borders, not less.

      1. Yes, if Netanyahu had a better ear for Western SWPL propaganda, he’d just refer to the Palestinians solely as “anti-immigration hate groups.” Like, “The Air Force successfully dropped white phosphorus on a nest of anti-immigration hate groups.”

  4. Why do Canada and the US have such similar views on immigration, but (at least to my ignorant understanding) rather different policies towards it? Which country’s policy makers are ignoring the desires of their citizens?

    Also it’s so strange to me to see countries that have had foreign people constantly stomping through their land over the past 4000 years that have nothing against immigration, while countries that were actually founded and almost entirely populated by immigrants don’t. Whether it’s right or wrong to have those views, it’s interesting to see the disconnect.

  5. Here are some possible theories that seem to be supported by an eyeballing of the data:

    (1) Countries that people want to emigrate from tend to have higher percentages of “Let anyone come” people: The simplest explanation of this is that people are applying a sort of Golden Rule: given that they themselves want to migrate to other countries, they think that people from other countries should be free to move to theirs. Conversely, people who don’t want to migrate to other countries don’t place much value in other people’s desire to migrate to theirs. While this sounds a bit self-serving, it does undermine accusations of hypocrisy.

    (2) Countries that have very little immigration tend to have higher percentages of “Let anyone come” people: The explanation here would be that countries where people haven’t had to confront the actual effects of immigration tend to have more people who make extreme “Let anyone come” proclamations. Countries with a higher foreign-born share tend to be less likely to favor the extreme view, perhaps because anti-immigration views and politics are bolstered by the presence of immigrants. At the same time, countries with larger immigrant shares don’t have too many people who favor complete prohibition of immigration.

    One way of thinking about it is that the presence of immigrants moderates people’s theoretical views at both extremes, though the net effect of this moderation is to make people more restrictionist.

    India, with a low immigrant share, is an example of a country with high shares at both extremes. The US, with a high immigrant share, is an example of a country with low to moderate shares at both extremes.

    Of course, a confounding factor for countries with high immigrant shares is that the population surveyed also includes immigrants and their children, who are notably more pro-immigration. It would be interesting to see comparable results restricted to the part of the population having no immediate blood or marriage connection to a recent immigrant or foreigner.

    Now, point (2) could be interpreted as vindicating restrictionism: people who know the effects of immigration tend to oppose it more. But another interpretation is that people generally have a presumption in favor of immigration, and anti-immigration views and politics, which tend to be higher in countries with larger immigrant shares, tend to work against that presumption. In countries with a lower immigrant share, people are much more likely to look at the issue from what one might call an abstract moral perspective, and the fact that the percentage of “let anyone come” tend to be high in these countries (though nowhere near as high as open borders advocates might hope) reveals perhaps that people generally do believe in a prima facie right to migrate.

  6. The case of India is interesting. I don’t claim to know a lot about India, which is after all a huge country. But my overall impression is that immigration from other countries is an issue largely in the areas of West Bengal and Assam, which share a border with Bangladesh and see a lot of border-crossing from Bangladesh. The GDP (PPP) per capita of Bangladesh is about half that of India, creating a strong migration pressure. There is definitely some anti-immigration sentiment in these areas, though I don’t know the overall pro/anti balance. It would be interesting to do an analysis by region and see if the “prohibit” folks are overwhelmingly in the areas that get migrants from Bangladesh.

    India also has pretty free migration from Nepal and Bhutan (as far as I know) — in fact, one doesn’t even need a passport for land crossing between the countries — but I think these countries are too small population-wise for the flow of people between these countries to be politically salient.

    The rest of India is largely untouched by migration from other countries, and the more politically salient issue is intranational migration. For instance, this Wikipedia page gives an example of restrictionist rhetoric and its consequences at an intranational level. It’s a sort of modern-day analogue to the anti-Okie laws in the US about 70 years ago, though there are also important differences.

  7. One thing which really surprises me is the contrast between Indonesia and Vietnam. Both countries are labour exporters, are among the region’s poorest countries, and in living memory had large-scale immigration from China and far smaller-scale immigration from India which has since mostly ceased. And furthermore in both countries, the only recent streams of foreign migration are international professionals (i.e. “expats”) and retirees, whose collective number is probably in the low hundreds of thousands at most.

    Yet if the WVS is to be believed, Vietnam is the most pro-open-borders country in the world, whereas Indonesia is as restrictionist as countries which are ten times richer (in fact it’s tied with Malaysia for the highest percentage of people who say there should be “strict limits” on immigration, and is among the bottom 5 countries for people who say immigration should be permitted “as long as jobs available”).

    The difference doesn’t seem to be attributable to religion: Thailand is also Buddhist like Vietnam but is far more restrictionist, whereas Morocco and Mali are Muslim like Indonesia but far more open to immigration. Maybe it’s due to the composition of the foreign population? Most of the foreigners in Vietnam seem to be Koreans and Japanese, whereas in Indonesia they get a lot more Australians.

  8. Thanks everybody, this is great! Lots of hypotheses to explore. Anomalies in the data could be an issue: WVS is a pretty high profile survey run by reputable academics, but it’s hard to translate questions across languages and cultures, and maybe “let anyone come” just sounds nicer in Vietnamese than Indonesian. When I get time, I’ll check the validity by seeing whether responses to other immigration-relevant questions show similar patterns. I suspect there might be lots of national idiosyncrasies in public opinion patterns which could be investigated, and then would inform the design of global regressions. I also saw the pattern Steve Sailer noted, that countries where demand for immigration is low seem more willing to “let anyone come,” but the correlation is far from exact.

  9. The recent findings of the UAE National Values Survey shows that People living in the UAE strongly value their relationships with family and are strongly committed to keeping ethics. UAE provides good employment opportunities and low crime rates. People have peace of mind and respect for each other and this can be the reason they value relationships and trust each other.

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