All posts by Fabio Rojas

Fabio Rojas is a sociology professor at Indiana University as well as an active blogger. See also:, a group blog to which he contributes Fabio Rojas' personal academic webpage Page about Fabio Rojas on Open Borders: The Case

Social conservatism and attitudes to immigration

A little while ago, I got into a debate with Vipul Naik over the link between social conservatism and open borders. My hypothesis was that social conservatives would oppose open borders because they are defending in-group privilege. Also, being socially conservative correlates with Republican party identification, which correlates with negative views of immigrants. In contrast, Vipul thought that the opposite might be true. Social conservative ideas (e.g., anti-abortion) do not logically entail anti-immigrant views. Immigration attitudes might be decoupled from social attitudes.

Here is what I found out when I used the General Social Survey to explore this issue. First, you have to identify an immigration question. The GSS has a few. The most general is “527. Do you think the number of immigrants from foreign countries who are permitted to come to the United States to live should be increased a lot, increased a little, left the same as it is now, decreased a little, or decreased a lot?” 1 – increased a lot. 5 – Decreased a lot. Roughly speaking, 8% increase, 37% stay the same, 54% decrease immigration.

Ok, let’s crank through some measures of social conservatism:

* Ideology: “66 A. We hear a lot of talk these days about liberals and conservatives. I’m going to show you a seven-point scale on which the political views that people might hold are arranged from extremely liberal–point 1–to extremely conservative– point 7. Where would you place yourself on this scale?” Correlation? .094 – p-value <.001. n=2598.
* Abortion attitudes: “251. Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or never legal under any circumstance?” 1 – Always. 3 – Never. Correlation? .016, not significant. N=1497.
* Gay Rights: “219. What about sexual relations between two adults of the same sex–do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?” 1- Always wrong, 4 – not wrong at all. Correlation? -.138, p <.001. N=1702.
* Affirmative action for blacks/women: “153/552. A. Some people say that because of past discrimination, blacks/women should be given preference in hiring and promotion. Others say that such preference in hiring and promotion of blacks is wrong because it discriminates against whites. What about your opinion — are you for or against preferential hiring and promotion of blacks?” 1. strong support to 4 strong oppose. Correlations? .198/.091 . p<.001/p =.07. N= 383 (each).
* Biblical literalism: “120A. Which of these statements comes closest to describing your feelings about the Bible? a. The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word. b. The Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, word for word. c. The Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by men.” 1 – word of God, 3 – book of fables. Correlation? .071, p=.16. N=383.

Bottom line: Anti-immigration views are always positively correlated with what we’d consider indicators of being socially conservative. In some cases, the correlation is strong, in other cases not significant. However, there are no cases where being conservative is correlated with having pro-immigration views.

Open Borders editorial note: You might also be interested in Nathan Smith’s post Who favors open borders?, that examines World Values Survey (WVS) data comparing attitudes to immigration in 48 countries around the world.

Open borders: what to do about it (part 3)

This is a guest post by Fabio Rojas, a professor of sociology at Indiana University. Rojas maintains his personal webpage here and is one of the bloggers at the blog.

This guest post is the third in a three-post series on how one could achieve open borders. The series focuses on public opinion and immigration policy in the United States, but its insights may apply to other nations as well. The first two post of the series can be found here and here.

This is the last installment of a three part series on open borders. My initial post offered some personal thoughts on why I believe in free movement between countries. The second and third posts focus on how open borders might happen. While there is much to be gained in discussing the merits of open borders, it is just as important to think how we can pursue change in concrete terms. I argued that open borders proponents should think more carefully about how we frame, or talk about, open borders. Free migration will require massive social change and advocates should develop ways of presenting their ideas that would appeal to many people, as well as more specific groups, such as jurists, who influence how laws are made and enacted.

Even more important than framing is politics, which simply means the effort that we expend to influence other people and reform our institutions. In writing this post, I do not assume that there is a single way to promote change. History shows us that change happens in many ways and that it is impossible to know in advance how things will change. What we can know for certain, though, is that history favors those who are prepared. The purpose of this post is to describe what open borders advocates might have to do if they want to see their ideas turn into practice.

My discussion is drawn from a recent book, The Making of Pro-Life Activists by Ziad Munson. This scholarly book contains a succinct analysis of the different branches of that movement. Munson notes that most activists focus on one of three activities: public outreach, electoral politics/lobbying and “direct action,” which denotes protest and other actions designed to prevent abortions from being performed in medical clinics. Similarly, the “political” side of open borders will have to address public opinion, elected officials, and forms of protest. Each has an important role that I discuss below.

Public Outreach

I’ll begin with “public outreach” because it is important and relatively easy to do. Public opinion is extremely important because politicians in a democracy won’t promote a policy if they know that the public opposes it. Academic research on social changes has often found that public opinion often changes before the government enacts major new legislation. For example, see Taeku Lee’s book on the civil rights movement. Savvy politicians know that they exploit shifting cultural currents and rarely initiate major change by themselves. That is why open borders advocates should think about the ways to change hearts and minds.

We should look to other movements for ideas about promoting open border to the public. The gay rights movement, for example, found that if enough people “come out of the closet,” then everybody will recognize that gay people are a group, even those that dislike them. Eventually, the presence of this group may be viewed as normal. If the hidden group can achieve some degree of “normality,” then they can become part of a broader social conversation. If enough gay people come out of the closet, then others will realize that their children, or parents, or friends might be gay. It is very difficult to sustain open bigotry if your relatives are openly gay. The lesson is that there is safety in numbers.

Open borders advocates should consider some version of this strategy. At the very least, we should develop a symbol, like the pink triangle for gay rights, that represents our view that people should be free to move as they wish between countries. This is a form of branding and it is important. Continue reading “Open borders: what to do about it (part 3)” »

Open borders: what to do about it (part 2)

This is a guest post by Fabio Rojas, a professor of sociology at Indiana University. Rojas maintains his personal webpage here and is one of the bloggers at the blog.

This guest post is the second in a three-post series on how one could achieve open borders. The series focuses on public opinion and immigration policy in the United States, but its insights may apply to other nations as well. The first post of the series can be found here.

Open Borders: Changing Public Opinion

Broadly speaking, fundamental policy change, such as creating open borders, is often the result of two forces, public opinion and organized action (“politics”). Open borders will become a reality when the public stops believing that immigrants are a threat and people who take the time to fight anti-immigration policies in the courts, legislatures and even in the street succeed. This essay focuses on one side of the equation – public opinion. Though I believe that all countries should have open borders, my comments are aimed at people in Western nations such as the US because my comments are based on what I’ve learned by studying social movements in relatively open nations. My comments don’t apply to nations that are authoritarian, such as North Korea, or countries that do not have some type of legal and political system that admits challenge. The next instalment will focus on politics, the “how to” of political change.

Framing the Issue

What should open borders advocates say to the public? In general, it is a mistake to offer highly technical arguments. Most people won’t be interested in subtle arguments about migration. Instead, open borders advocates should offer what social psychologists and linguists call a “framing,” a very general concept that allows people to succinctly identify a problem and think about the solution. A successful framing defines the way we see things and what we think is possible. A good framing appeals to some basic moral intuition, not scholarly argument. Scholars who study social change often find that framing among activist is something that often precedes broader change. (See Robert Benford and David Snow’s “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment,” in the 2000 Annual Review of Sociology 26: 611-639. Available on JSTOR).

Anti-immigration sentiment seems to rely on two frames. Among liberals, there is the “social problems” frame. Immigration is bad because new people require more resources such as jobs and government services. There is also a related view that immigrants will have problems assimilating into American society. They won’t learn the language and they can’t get educated. All these criticisms of immigration appeal to the idea that a nation is like a boat. The boat has only so much space and overcrowding will sink the ship. Immigrants are inherently bad. It’s just that low levels are preferable for technical reasons.

There is also a nativist framing that views immigration as a threat. Immigrants are viewed as outside the native ethnic group. They are impure and not really American. They are of lower moral character and are more likely to require charity and more likely to be criminals. From this perspective, immigration restrictions are needed to preserve native culture and keep out people who will drain resources and be a drag on the rest of society.

It is not clear to me that open borders advocates have articulated a compelling alternate frame, even though I find lengthier academic arguments to be persuasive. For example, many in the immigrant rights community draw attention to the suffering of immigrants. While I agree that immigrants unjustly suffer, this is an ineffective framing of the issue because immigrant rights activists rarely attack the premise that immigration restrictions themselves are unjust. In other words, as long as average Americans think that it is normal to restrict immigration, framings such as “immigrant rights” or “end the suffering” will not be effective.

It is worth mentioning that some writers have thought carefully about framing. The FrameWorks Institute, a group that studies how to make people think differently about policy issues, has issued two papers dealing with framing immigration (available here). Continue reading “Open borders: what to do about it (part 2)” »

Open borders: what to do about it (part 1)

This is a guest post by Fabio Rojas, a professor of sociology at Indiana University. Rojas maintains his personal webpage here and is one of the bloggers at the blog.

This guest post is the first in a three-post series on how one could achieve open borders. The series focuses on public opinion and immigration policy in the United States, but its insights may apply to other nations as well. The second post in the series is now available here.

Vipul has graciously asked me to contribute to the Open Borders website. As an enthusiastic advocate of free immigration, I immediately agreed. There has been some discussion on this site about why open borders are desirable and about what open borders advocates want. My goal in this series of posts is to address the related question: “How do we get there?” What can we do to make open borders a reality? I think that I have some valuable insights because I am a sociologist who studies social change. Sociologists have spent decades thinking about the factors behind social change. There has now been decades of research focusing on issues such as public opinion, policy change, and political mobilization.

A personal note

Before, I get into the question of “how do we get there,” I’d like to take a few moments to discuss “how did I get there?” In other words, why do I believe in free immigration and open borders? As with John Lee, the answer for me is a mix of biography and argument. First, my parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1960s. They were school teachers and came to study at New York University. Eventually, they landed jobs in American schools. Thus, my experience of immigration was fairly positive. By moving to America, my mother was rescued from poverty. My father came from a middle class family and was able to study science at a leading university. I immediately knew that immigration was good. If you were stuck in a bad situation, you could always move. My father used to tell me, “Everyone in the world is a citizen of two countries – the place where you were born and America.” I was grateful to be in America.

As I grew up, I came to realize that not everyone viewed immigration in such positive terms. A lot of people were personally hostile towards immigrants. Many people wished to limit immigration to very low levels. Some people were even violent towards immigrants. This led me to ask, “What was so bad about immigration? What had my parents done that was so horrible, so threatening that they deserved the scorn of others?”

Over time, I realized that there weren’t very good answers to these questions. Immigrants were simply people who wanted better jobs, to be left alone by their government, or simply didn’t like where they were living. These are the same things that motivate people to move within their country, but we have few barriers for migration between cities and states. Is a man who moves from Tijuana to San Diego more of a problem than the man who moves from Oklahoma City to San Diego? This question appeared more absurd when I read my history books in school. Until the early 20th century, America had relatively unrestricted immigration. Millions upon millions came to America. There were contentious arguments about immigration, about how immigrants would undermine this country. Yet, America continued to be a great nation. Surely, immigration was not the threat that it was made out to be.

As an adult, I earned my doctoral degree in sociology and I was more able to assess anti-immigration arguments. There’s little evidence that the mass migration of the 1800s made Americans worse off, or that the influx of immigrants in the 1960s was such a bad thing. Much sociological research shows that the children of most immigrants assimilate very quickly into American society. They speak English, they get jobs, they go to college.

What to do about it

The purpose of this essay is not to comprehensively argue that immigration bans are wrong. There are many other essays on this website that make the case for free immigration. Instead, this essay is aimed at those who are already accept that immigration restrictions are cruel. This essay is for people who believe that building a massive wall for the purpose of preventing someone who crossing the border to work in a restaurant is crazy. This essay is for those who say, “What do we do now?”

I have good news and bad news for these readers. The good news is that I honestly believe that there is an effective and rational path to much freer immigration policy. The bad news is that social change of this sort is usually slow, incremental and difficult. Open borders will not appear simply because an economist has shown that immigrants don’t put people out of work. Rather, social change of this sort happens when there is a concerted effort to change public opinion coupled with an organized attempt to change policy through electoral politics, litigation, and protest. The formula is “public opinion + politics = success.” It’s hard to pull off, but it can be done.

In two more posts, I’ll outline some concrete strategies for change. For now, I’ll describe the way that sociologists tend to think about social change and how that can help us think about undermining anti-immigration sentiment in America. First, a policy, such as immigration restriction, is based on public opinion. Public opinion is what “the people” think about a topic. As a rule of thumb, government policies follow public opinion. Thus, any attempt to create open borders must start with a strategy for making the public more tolerant of immigration.

Second, institutions are a big factor in public policy. Even if a policy is unpopular, someone has to take the time and effort to write a new law, fight for it, and defend it in court. Often, there are people who benefit from bad policies. There are many law enforcement officers, for example, who take pride in border control and whose livelihood depends on the fences that separate people. People with vested interests will often vigorously fight for the status quo. That is why you need political work to end bad policy. You need to lobby public officials, you need to file lawsuits, and you need to protest. Somebody has to work “the system” to make change happen. If you don’t do that, vested interests will win the day. In other words, after you change public opinion, you then have to “do politics.”

Transforming public opinion and building the infrastructure for politics is long, hard work. It is often selfless and unrewarded. However, it is often the only path that may be successful. The next two posts will explain how open borders advocates can build a movement for change. My ideas are drawn from my own reading of research on political change and social movements. The next post will discuss public opinion and how open borders advocates can create the intellectual climate needed for open borders. My last post will discuss the nitty gritty of politics.