Transatlantic Trends: Immigration 2011

Survey: U.S., European Immigration Views Stable Despite Economic Crisis And Arab Spring

Transatlantic Trends: Immigration 2011Download 2011 Key Findings Report

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Americans, Europeans continue to see immigration as a problem, want centralized immigration policies, sympathize with forced migrants, overestimate immigrant numbers, are open to highly skilled immigrants

WASHINGTON (December 15, 2011) — A new public opinion survey out today shows that in the midst of the global economic crisis and “Arab Spring,” attitudes toward immigration remain stable in the United States and five European countries. According to the 2011 Transatlantic Trends: Immigration survey, most Americans and Europeans see immigration as a problem yet remain optimistic about immigrant integration. The survey also shows that while most disapprove of government management of immigration, a majority of Americans and Europeans support centralized immigration policies over local ones.

According to the fourth-annual Transatlantic Trends: Immigration survey of public opinion in the United States and five European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom), slight majorities in the United States (53%) and Europe (52%) continue to view immigration as more of a problem than an opportunity. Most also maintain a negative view of government management of immigration, with 68% of Europeans and 73% of Americans believing that their government is doing a poor or very poor job. Nevertheless, most Americans (56%) and Europeans (52%) remain optimistic about immigrant integration, and majorities are interested in letting in more highly educated immigrants.

“Policymakers should pay attention to the results of Transatlantic Trends: Immigration,” said GMF President Craig Kennedy. “The survey reveals that, even in tumultuous political and economic times, Americans and Europeans have stable feelings about immigration but are still frustrated with how their governments are handling the issue.”

Transatlantic Trends: Immigration is a public opinion survey that addresses multiple aspects of the immigration and integration debate, including the effect of the economic crisis on attitudes toward immigration, immigrants’ labor market impacts and effects on wages, and how governments are managing immigration, among others. The survey is a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), the Compagnia di San Paolo (Italy), and the Barrow Cadbury Trust (U.K.), with additional support from the Fundación BBVA (Spain). In 2011, the survey addressed key international developments by asking the public about their principal concerns — the economy and unemployment — as well as the “Arab Spring.” Despite the widespread transatlantic economic worries and new migration flows from North Africa to Europe, general attitudes on immigration have changed little over the previous three years of the TTI survey.

GMF and its partners have experts available in Washington, Berlin, Brussels, London, Madrid, Rome, and Paris for comment on television, on radio, in print, and on the web.



Basic public stances on immigration have not changed notably in the last year, even in Europe where the perceived threat of movement from the Arab Spring was a central issue. When respondents were asked to list their chief concerns, the economy and unemployment were paramount. Perceptions of immigration as a problem or opportunity have changed little since 2008. In 2011, 52% of Europeans polled and 53% of Americans saw immigration as more of a problem than an opportunity, with the strongest pessimism in the United Kingdom (68%).


When Americans were asked which level of government should have primary responsibility to enforce immigration laws, 54% preferred the federal government, compared to 41% who preferred state or local authorities. This showed an increase in support for federal responsibility since 2010, when 50% of Americans chose the federal option.


Support for an EU responsibility to set national-level immigration numbers increased to 42% in 2011, though the Southern European countries still show far greater interest than other parts of Europe. Sixty percent of Italians and 51% of Spaniards preferred a European Union role in establishing national immigrant numbers, an increase from 2010 when levels were 47% and 34%, respectively. Germany showed far lower support (35%, still up from 27% in 2010), with the lowest support in the United Kingdom (18%, up from 12% in 2010).


Strong majorities in all countries polled in Europe supported European burden-sharing on the North African migration crisis, with 80% of respondents agreeing that responsibility should be shared by all countries in the EU rather than by the country where migrants first arrive. The lowest support was expressed in the U.K. (68%), and the highest support was found in Italy (88%). On the broader issue of forced migration, the survey showed very high support for people avoiding armed conflict, with 79% of Europeans and 74% of Americans in favor of allowing such migrants.


As in previous years, Americans and Europeans largely overestimated the percent share of immigrants in their countries. British respondents, on average, estimated a foreign-born population of 31.8%, while just 11.3% of the population is actually foreign born. Americans, on average, estimated a foreign-born population of 37.8%, and the actual foreign-born population is only 12.5% of the population.


Republicans and Democrats disagreed on many issues, from the importance of immigration on the policy agenda to stances on policy options. When asked if they were worried about illegal immigration, 48% of Democrats expressed concern compared to a large majority of Republicans (72%). On whether illegal immigrants should be legalized or forced to return home, 58% of Democrats preferred legalization compared to only 33% of Republicans. Despite the splits, the U.S. public supported the idea of legalizing illegal youths who enter college or the U.S. military, as well as the preservation of birthright citizenship.


Majorities everywhere supported increasing admissions of highly educated immigrants, with the approval of 63% of American and 62% of European respondents. On the question of immigrants with low levels of education, however, only 36% of Americans approved increased admissions, compared to 29% of Europeans. On the other hand, when offered a tradeoff, publics everywhere preferred lower-educated immigrants with jobs offers to highly educated immigrants with no job offers.


TNS Opinion was commissioned to conduct the Transatlantic Trends: Immigration survey using Computer Assisted Telephone Interviews. In each country, a random sample of approximately 1,000 men and women, 18 years of age and older, was interviewed. In countries where 20% or more of the population has access only to a cell phone, including Spain, Italy, and the United States, 20% of the interviews were conducted by cell phone. Interviews were conducted using Random Digit Dialing in Europe between August 25, 2011, and September 18, 2011. For results based on the national samples in each of the countries surveyed, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of error attributable to sampling and other random effects is +/- 3.1 percentage points. For results based on the total European sample, the maximum margin of error is +/-1.4 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can also introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls. More detailed methodology is found at

Transatlantic Trends: Immigration is a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Compagnia di San Paolo, and the Barrow Cadbury Trust, with additional support from the Fundación BBVA.

Topline Data from previous surveys can be found in the Data Archive.