What Americans Really Think About Immigration

Activists may not want to hear it, but the truth is immigration is a political loser. This is the sort of political analysis we’ve heard from centrist and liberal political operatives wary of repeating the mistakes of 2016. That was the year the British public voted to leave the European Union, sending shockwaves through the West. The Brexit vote was largely seen as driven by xenophobia—Leavers warned that remaining in the EU would allow migrants to flow unchecked across the channel. And across an ocean, many heralded Donald Trump’s victory as proof that the American public was hostile to newcomers and would no longer tolerate significant levels of immigration.

But just last week, the Biden administration issued a rule seeking to make it harder for people to request asylum in the United States. It’s a decision made in the context of the president’s tough reelection chances and reflects the hope some have that cracking down at the border could gain him some political points.

Attitudes toward immigration—particularly in the U.S.—are a lot more complicated than many political commentators would have you believe. Vaguely cracking down at the border often doesn’t address the very real concerns people have about how immigration policy is working. Views of immigration are highly contingent on the method of entry and the perceived scarcity of jobs and housing—not to mention the country of origin of the incoming immigrants and the intangible feeling about whether the country “controls” its own borders or if people are gaming the system by coming illegally.

In this episode of Good on Paper, our guest is John Burn-Murdoch, a columnist and chief data reporter at the Financial Times. He helps me break down what influences public opinion on immigration.

“We only have this single word, immigration, to talk about this enormously varied phenomenon,” Burn-Murdoch tells me. “I think [this] is really unhelpful for the debate because, generally speaking, whether we’re looking at the U.S., the U.K., Europe, the concern that people have is not with people coming to work in the country; it’s not with people coming to study in the country. It’s a concern with people who are arriving in the country without any clear pathway into society, as it were, and this general sense that there is a lack of control over what’s happening.”

Listen to the conversation here:


The following is a transcript of the episode:

Jerusalem Demsas: This is Good on Paper, a policy show that questions what we really know about popular narratives. I’m your host, Jerusalem Demsas, and this show was born out of my writing here at The Atlantic.

Over the years, I’ve written about a bunch of things—from the local politics of housing to the strange politics of student-debt-relief efforts—and the throughline of many of my articles has been a nagging feeling that there was something wrong with the broad narratives that defining a particular public conversation or policy debate.

On this show, there’s no one “right answer” we’re trying to find. And, of course, all facts are subject to interpretation. And you’ll hear a lot of my and others’ opinions.

But the goal is to make arguments based on research and data, to poke holes where narratives have gone beyond the facts, and, occasionally, to give narratives their due. After all, many of them exist for good reason.

Today’s episode is about a topic I have thought about a lot: immigration.

In recent years, one overarching narrative has seemed to define the political debate, and that is that immigration is seen as a loser for the left and a winner for the right.

This narrative has been hard at work in the Biden administration and among our congressional representatives.

[Music]

Just last week, President Biden issued a rule that seeks to make it more difficult for people trying to seek asylum to do so. His new order mirrors that of Trump-era policies he once condemned. This about-face is clearly political. Biden’s poll numbers against Trump are concerning to the White House, and immigration has long been a sore spot. Many believe that cracking down at the border is a good way to improve Biden’s reelection chances.

But does that theory make sense?

Now, this episode was taped before this latest move from Washington, but the political theory underpinning that decision is very much based on the popular narrative we’re exploring here today. It’s one we see here in the U.S. and across an ocean, where my guest today is based.

John Burn-Murdoch is a columnist and chief data reporter at the Financial Times who has written about public opinion and immigration in really compelling ways. And as someone who loves good data visualization, I think he’s also a great person to follow on Twitter.

Let’s dive in.

[Music]

John, welcome to the show.

John Burn-Murdoch: Thank you for having me.

Demsas: So I’ve been thinking about this topic for a really long time because I feel like this is one of those meta-political narratives that I was taken in by at first, and then started thinking this doesn’t really fully make sense. But I feel like since 2015 or 2016, there has been this conventional wisdom that’s built particularly among center-left political pundits or folks who are trying to win elections or political observers that activists may not like it, but immigration is a political loser. The electorate hates immigration.

You have to be anti-immigration in order to win elections. That’s just the way it goes, no matter what cosmopolitans in New York City or London want to tell you. And that building narrative really felt like it went into overdrive in 2016. Did you see that, too?

Burn-Murdoch: Yeah, it’s super interesting. And one of the reasons I’ve been looking forward to this conversation is, I think, the number of times I’m probably going to overstate something and then backtrack and then restate something because the whole debate is so interesting and so nuanced, and there are so many different layers to it.

So to start with the actual question you asked me: Yeah, I think a hundred percent, right? Brexit in the U.K. in 2016, which was our implosion just before Trump’s election, was almost the perfect distillation of exactly this. You had a sky-high concern over immigration, and—numbers in the U.K., for example—this was regularly coming out as the single issue that people were more concerned about than anything else. And that was true, crucially, not just among your more right-leaning, more immigration-anxious people. This was true across the U.K.—people in the center and many people on the left, as well.

This was coming off the back of the European migrant crisis in 2015, where huge, huge, huge numbers of refugees, asylum seekers were turning up in Southern Europe. So there was this huge sense that this was the issue of the day. And this is true, however you look at it, as well.

So big surveys were done in the aftermath of the U.K.’s vote to leave the EU, where people were asked, What were the factors motivating their decision? And however you looked at it, whether you looked at what option people ticked from a predefined list, or whether you just let them speak or write all of their thoughts and then tallied up what got mentioned the most, the dominant things by a mile were immigration and a broader sense of control. So a hundred percent, this was the issue of the day.

There was a real sense that this was what had determined the results of the EU referendum. And there’s all sorts of solid academic analysis that’s been done on this issue, as well—much broader than just the U.K.—showing that this really has been, over the last 15 or so years, a very genuine, rising concern among the public and something that has enabled or empowered the rise of a lot of right-wing parties.

Demsas: Yeah, I think that, obviously from an American context, which has largely been seen both in polling and just broadly in culture as a more immigrant-friendly place than the rest of the world. And I remember seeing Brexit when it happened and, you know, I was surprised by the result, like many people who were just lightly following it from the U.S. But maybe this doesn’t have broader narratives for everyone.

But then in the U.S., it really became clear with the election of Donald Trump, and seeing what people were saying was a huge concern for them around immigration. And I think, really importantly—because a lot of this conversation is going to be trying to complicate this narrative a bit—part of the reason this narrative is really taking hold is that politics happens at the margins, right?

So when elections are happening, elected officials or candidates—or even reporters, in many cases—are not always thinking about the staunch supporters of either party. They’re really fixed on the people who are going to be persuadable, whether they’re swing voters or these are individuals who seem heterodox in some other way.

And those people, it seems like there was, especially at this point in time, an increasing amount of concern about immigration and whether there had been too much, or whether the country had lost control of its ability to control its own borders. And I think that that’s why it really took off and got ahead of its skis here and became a characterization of the entire electorate, rather than just like, Oh, this is a question about who is a marginal voter.

Burn-Murdoch: Yeah, I think that’s a hundred percent right. And one thing we need to say here, as well, is that there is actually—at least up until around the 2016 period in the U.K., but also more broadly across countries—there’s actually a fairly good relationship between actual immigration levels and the extent to which people are concerned about immigration.

So it can be easy for immigration liberals to say, Look. This is all a concoction of the media, and certain politicians or media organizations decide to turn up the button on immigration, and that’s what causes concern. And we’ll come in the course of the conversation onto the extent to which that can be true. But I think it’s important for immigration liberals to recognize that people—to a broad extent, and certainly until relatively recently—are responding to the actual situation on the ground rather than just what they’re being told through various filters.

Demsas: Yeah, I think this is a place where we’re going to have an interesting conversation because that decoupling is actually more than you’re saying here—because, to me, when I look at the electorate, I actually see large divergence between the literal numbers of the border and concern around immigration.

So October of last year, for instance, you see really high numbers at the Southwest border encounters. It’s some of the highest that we’ve seen the entire year. But just 13 percent of Americans are saying, according to Gallup, that immigration is a top issue, and the economy is way outranking that.

But I do think that, in many ways, it is decoupled. There’s evidence from when there were rising numbers of minors coming to the border in 2014 in the U.S. We had this huge crisis that the Obama administration was dealing with, and there was all this conversation around all these unaccompanied minors coming here, and: It’s a way of gaming the system, and it’s really unfair. And when it all came and tallied up, it was just 69,000 over the entire course of the time period of 2014 where you were seeing a number of unaccompanied minors.

And so to me, I think this decoupling has actually been around for a while. But the reason why I want to talk to you is because you’re seeing this as a new phenomenon, this decoupling between the number of border encounters or immigrants coming to the country and public opinion. And you did a story about this last December, so I’m hoping you can tell us a little bit about that.

Burn-Murdoch: Yeah. And look, I should stress: When I say that the concern with immigration tends to be related to the real situation on the ground, what I mean by that is it does seem to be related to the situation on the ground by some definition. For example, when you’re talking about children at the border, that was a real event. And just now, in the U.K. over recent months, for example, there has been a real increase in the numbers of people arriving in the U.K., having crossed the channel in small boats.

But the idea that it’s a simple numbers game, that just doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. And this is one of the key things, which is that the fact that we only have this single word, immigration, to talk about this enormously varied phenomenon, I think, is really unhelpful for the debate.

Because, generally speaking, whether we’re looking at the U.S., the U.K., Europe, the concern that people have is not with people coming to work in the country; it’s not with people coming to study in the country. It’s a concern with people who are arriving in the country without any clear pathway into society, as it were, and this general sense that there is a lack of control over what’s happening.

The U.K. is a perfect example of this because immigration to the U.K. over the last year or two has been the highest it’s ever been. But if you look at the numbers of people who say that immigration is the single-biggest issue facing the country, those numbers are the same as they were about 25 years ago when immigration was lower.

And something I’ve always been envious of about the U.S. is: It strikes me—and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong here—that America has always had a better conversation around this because it’s a country of immigrants. There is a sense that people going to another country to seek a better future—to work, to contribute—is not only a good thing, but it’s the ultimate thing for America. And so in America, from my viewpoint, there’s quite a separate conversation about people coming to work with visas versus people turning up at the southern border.

And, I think, in the U.K., for a very, very, very long time until very recently, we were just smushing all of this together. And what we’re maybe starting to benefit from now is that since leaving the European Union—and therefore having much more control or pretty much full control over who can and can’t come into the country—we’re now getting that better debate, which can allow for more precise discussions around what might need tightening up around the edges.

And that allows a lot of people who are, let’s say, in the middle of the population—not especially immigration anxious and not open-border liberals—it allows that group of people to distinguish between the two things and say, Yeah, I’m a bit worried about the number of people who are coming over on small boats. This feels like a problem, but I don’t have any problem with the numbers of people coming over to work in the healthcare system.

Demsas: There are two really important distinctions you made that I want to pull out there. One is this idea that people are responding to real events, but that their response to real events doesn’t mean that their opinion is tracking with immigration numbers. There is an increased number of people coming to the U.S. There are increased numbers of people coming to the U.K. And there is media coverage of that, and so people are informed of that. And that’s real. It’s not being made up.

But, even though that’s true, it doesn’t mean that you can respond and say, Oh, there’s a lever I can push—imaginary lever—of less and more immigrants, and that will track public opinion. That’s not how it goes. I think that’s a really important conceptual framing that you have in your article.

And the second thing is—and I think it’s funny, you know—here in the U.S., you can get so into this insular debate about where we are in immigration that you forget the larger context that the U.S. is, by international accounts, a really immigrant-friendly country. That is not how it is described in recent years anymore, because that’s been a central political debate.

And just for our American listeners here, when you’re looking at the U.S., even right now, there’s not a majority of the country that thinks that immigration levels should decrease. Sixty-eight percent of Americans think that immigration, on the whole, is a good thing for the country. And 41 percent say immigration levels should decrease, whereas 31 percent are comfortable with current levels, and 26 percent say they want that increased.

And when you look at what the actual immigration levels are for this time period, right—and I’m looking at the [Customs Border Protection] data, “Nationwide Encounters,” fiscal year 2022—you’re seeing 2.7 million people coming into the United States over that year. And that’s really high. That’s a significant increase.

And yet when you look at the number of people that are saying, Yeah, I’m just comfortable with what’s going on, and, I’m willing to see that number increase, I don’t think they know the actual number. I don’t think they’re saying, I think that 1 million or 2 million or 500,000 is the right number of people to come in. They’re just reacting to what their perception is about how immigration is affecting their lives, and so I think that’s really an important corrective for this.

But so the reason why—and I think you’re getting at this here—is complicating the question of what immigration is: what types of immigration people have issues with, when people become more or less amenable to immigration, when they feel concerned about it. Because when I started really investigating this question is when I started looking at the poll numbers around welcoming Ukrainian refugees in the U.S.

By late September, after Russia invaded Ukraine, almost 50,000 Ukrainians had been welcomed into the U.S., and another 80,000 were expected to arrive by the end of the year, and they did. At the time, polling from Gallup found that 78 percent of Americans approved of this plan. And I looked at that number and I was just like, That seems wild.

How are people deciding when and where and what factors make someone more amenable to immigration? Method of entry seems really, really important. What have you seen in the U.K. about how people enter into the country really shaping attitudes towards immigration?

Burn-Murdoch: Hundred percent, yeah. There are several factors here.

One is the method of entry. Has this person arrived here with permission? Basically, I think it comes down to that. Is this someone who the U.K., the government, the home office, they’re aware of this person, they’ve looked at the papers and said, Yep, all good? So that is a big part of this. It really, really, really comes back to—again and again—again this issue of control over who’s coming in. So that’s a big part of it.

Another part that I think is specifically true when we’re talking about, for example, the Afghan translators for the U.S. or the Hong Kongers coming to the U.K., there’s a sense, almost, of duty to allies here that I think comes into this. It’s harder to put an exact number on that because, generally, the research in this space focuses on the broader issues rather than thinking about these foreign-policy-related situations.

But with Hong Kong and Afghanistan, in particular, there’s this real sense of, We owe these people something, or in the case of the British Hong Kongers, it’s a sense of, You’re essentially one of us already. I mean, there were huge numbers of British people who, in 2022 and ’23, hosted Ukrainian refugees in their own families, so there was this real sense of, Hey, look. I’m thinking about this purely as helping out someone who’s helped us out, as it were.

Demsas: Yeah. Hong Kong was wild to me. I mean, Boris Johnson—famous Leaver, obviously someone who was very critical of high levels of immigration—he announces, basically, that anyone with a British passport in Hong Kong, anyone who’s eligible in Hong Kong to get one, which is over 2.5 million people, roughly almost 3 million people, could come. And just 10 percent of respondents to a poll in the U.K. opposed that program. That, to me, is really interesting.

Burn-Murdoch: Yeah. I will say one thing—and this is not something I’m putting on you—but sometimes there’s a tendency in the U.S. to conflate Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. They both have crazy hair. They certainly share some of their politics and some of their mannerisms.

But Johnson has been this slightly strange figure, in that he was a very popular mayor of London for several years in the 2010s. And on many issues, he is just a classical liberal and also, in some areas, almost libertarian. So Johnson’s approach to the Hong Kong situation didn’t really, necessarily, feel contradictory in that sense. But, certainly, the party that he built around him included a lot of much more hardline people on immigration, where that policy certainly would have looked more surprising.

But just coming back to the original question, again, I think so much of this comes down to the sense of control, but then also the sense of, Are these people going to be contributing to society? And this I think is where the contrast between what we see in the U.K. and the U.S., and what we see in continental Europe, for example, is really, really striking. Something that I think, again, a lot of listeners probably won’t appreciate is that the sentiment towards immigration in continental Europe is significantly more negative than it is in Britain and America.

So if we look at—it’s kind of whatever question you ask. There are variants, which ask, Has immigration been good for this country or not? And that’s a classic one, where you’ll see U.K., U.S., Canada, Ireland down at the bottom end; France, Germany, and Italy at the top end.

But countries like Sweden—which I think most people think of as the progressive bastions—you get a really interesting contrast where people will say, if you ask them, Do you like immigrants? Do you approve of immigration in the abstract? they’ll say yes. And then if you ask them, How has this gone for Sweden? they’ll say not good.

And when you dig deeper into what’s happening with immigration in Europe, a lot of this starts to make sense. So if we look at things like the employment or unemployment rates of the native-born people versus those arriving from overseas, you just get this consistent pattern that comes up time and time again, which is that in English-speaking countries, generally people arriving from overseas are more well educated than the native born. They are just as likely to be employed. They’re often more likely to be employed in skilled work. They’re less likely to have dropped out of school at high school.

Generally, across the board, there are some examples in the U.S.—in particular, actually—where there’s a slight exception, whereas if you look at France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, and so on, you tend to see the complete opposite, which is that the immigrant populations in these countries are much less well educated than the native-born population.

Some people on the right generally respond to this and say, Well, it’s clearly because of the type of people who are coming to these countries. And just from the outset, I think, clearly there is an element to an extent that is true, but there are a couple of caveats I add to that. One is that a very large part of this is about language. So it’s actually, I think, more about language than necessarily about skills.

Demsas: And by language, do you include culture in that, or do you mean literally just, Can you speak the language?

Burn-Murdoch: Mainly just speaking the language.

Demsas: Okay.

Burn-Murdoch: So the reason I say that is if you look at the numbers of people, of immigrants arriving in different countries who have very good proficiency in the language of the country they’ve moved to or have very, very bad [proficiency].

In English-speaking countries, as one might expect, this is a global language with huge soft power. You know, people who are watching TV shows, it’s often in English. As a result, the immigrants who turn up in English-speaking countries, very few of them don’t speak the language, whereas in the majority of European countries, you get significantly higher numbers who don’t.

But to dismiss it all as being an accident of geography and history, as it were, and say, Well, you’ve just happened to have had this situation, I think is also an oversimplification, because, arguably, most important of all is what happens between the first generation and subsequent generations of an immigrant community in a country.

And when you look at the socioeconomic outcomes of immigrants in countries like the U.K. and U.S., you consistently see in pretty much any group that the children of the first generation of immigrants have better outcomes than their parents: higher incomes, higher employment rates. That kind of thing. Whereas if you look at countries like France and Germany, for a lot of groups, there’s no progress, or for some, there’s even a slight move backwards.

That is almost the worst-case scenario for a country here because, just on a basic socioeconomic level, there’s a sense from the immigration-anxious portion of the population that, Well, these people aren’t fitting in. But also within those communities, you then start to get this sense of, Hey, why aren’t we fitting in? Why do we feel like a separate part of this culture?

You get some people turning, therefore, to things like crime. So I’ve been rambling for a while here, but I think it’s just really important to get across the fact that what immigration looks like and what immigrants look like in these different countries is very, very varied. And public opinion and politics around immigration generally map quite well onto those different situations.

[Music]

Demsas: Okay, we’re going to take a quick break. More with John when we get back.

[Break]

Demsas: I think that part of what really interested me is the focus on when things become chaotic, right? Because what you started off saying at the beginning of this episode, around being people responding to real events, really resonates with what’s happening the last couple years in the United States.

So cities like New York and Chicago—these are really welcoming to immigrants, yet there was a real turn against and anger at the local level about the migrant resettlement in their cities and the chaos that ensued. And it wasn’t even—I mean, relative to the population, I don’t know if I would notice, walking around New York City, whether there were 150,000 more people or not.

But what people did notice is that there were people sleeping on the streets in downtown Manhattan. What people did notice is that there were reports of, even, a school being used by migrants for shelter instead of housing local students for school, and hotels being taken up by migrants. And it really activated this anger.

And I remember I was doing some reporting on this, and I kept hearing from people how they separated out native-born homeless folks from migrant homeless in a way that was like—and they called them indigenous. It’s indigenous homeless people versus migrant homeless people. And it really opens up where the real problem here is when you see a serious drain on state and local coffers as a result of migration.

That is a really important factor in this: if you can assimilate a bunch of people. Look at what happened with the experience of Ukrainians, where they were given work visas right away, and there was a lot of coordination between the federal and state government to get people here, and they were arriving at airports. They weren’t coming to the Southern border and being bussed by Greg Abbott randomly without much coordination.

And I think that that chaos was really impactful because you see a place like New York City, like Chicago—very used to waves of immigrants, very liberal, usually very open—and that method of entry, despite relatively small numbers, really overwhelmed the city. You had Eric Adams, the mayor of New York, saying, Don’t come here, which is not a thing that Democratic mayors of New York normally say to immigrants.

Burn-Murdoch: Yeah, I think that’s a hundred percent correct. And again, it looks quite similar in the U.K.

In the lead-up to the EU referendum here, the areas of the country that voted to leave in their highest numbers were generally those where you had these two things in common: One was no history of immigration or very little history of immigration, and then a sudden and quite rapid influx in the years preceding the referendum. And generally that was an influx of lower-skilled people. And these were relatively poor parts of the country, so areas that were already quite stretched in terms of their resources.

So a hundred percent, people are looking at how this is playing out. And again, of course, this gets amplified by the media, and there are political opportunities here. But people are, generally, really sensing something real here. And, as you say, if the change is relatively slow, or not even necessarily slow but it’s the changes—

Demsas: It feels gradual.

Burn-Murdoch: Exactly. It feels gradual because, coming back to the fact that this isn’t strictly all about numbers, a shift of a certain number of people who all slot straight into the labor market, for example, is probably going to seem a lot less apparent than a significantly smaller shift of people who are, again, visibly in the streets all day.

So exactly what you’re saying there. I think people are absolutely aware of what’s playing out, and they’re able to distinguish between these quite different situations. And that’s why, I think, the fact that we’re, hopefully, starting to be able to have these conversations about differences here and what works better and what works less well is, I think, just a good thing for discussions and for future policymaking in this whole space.

Demsas: Yeah, I feel like when people want to talk about this, there isn’t a real problem that people are reacting to. There’s a desire to cast all of the people who are frustrated with immigration as xenophobes instead of trying to disaggregate what their real concerns are and actually address them.

I thought this was really obvious to me in Ireland, recently. Ireland, as you mentioned, historically, it’s a very welcoming country to immigrants. I mean, they have this history, nationally, of themselves being immigrants, especially to the U.S. And this past year, you’ve seen a lot of that shift, primarily because there’s this huge housing crisis going on in Ireland, where it’s so expensive to live.

I read this stat that the number of young people going to Australia to get a visa to work has skyrocketed because it’s cheaper for people to find housing there. And when you set people up—this is one of the things that me and you talk about a lot in our own writing around housing costs and how that spurs an anti-growth sentiment when you have really, really skyrocketing cost of living primarily driven by shelter.

And when I look at the case of Ireland, clearly, what’s going on here is that people are viewing their own cost of living going up, and then they’re like, Why is the government bringing more people here to take care of when they’re not even taking care of their own people?

Burn-Murdoch: Yeah, a hundred percent. The really interesting shift we’re actually seeing, starting in the last couple of years, is, certainly in English-speaking countries, the hot-button topic around immigration shifting from jobs to houses.

So, again, in Europe, a lot of this is still jobs because there are poorer parts of Europe. And when there are lower-skilled immigrants coming in, there’s a sense that this could put downward pressure on wages, whereas in the English-speaking world—where it’s harder and harder to make those arguments about jobs and pay because they just haven’t panned out that way—what we’re seeing this shift towards is housing.

And it’s funny that you mentioned Irish people are leaving for Australia, because I think any Australian would tell you that if you’re coming to Australia for cheap housing, then things must be horrendously, horrendously bad where you are.

Demsas: (Laughs) Yes.

Burn-Murdcoh: But yeah, I think that’s spot on. And this is another one where, as a migration liberal, it’s simple supply and demand—that if you have more people coming into a country who are going to be competing for the same housing stock, there’s just no two ways about it. That is adding pressure into an already very, very hot housing market. And, of course, generally, immigrants are moving towards the most dynamic cities in any given country, which is where these issues are already the most acute.

I think the one note I always like to add to this is that housing policy, of course, is something that governments, both national and local, have a huge amount of control over. And, of course, new-house building is notoriously unpopular, and that puts political pressure on and, therefore, a lot of stuff doesn’t get built. But if you look at the statistics—

Demsas: And you’re in the NIMBY capital of the world. I thought it was San Francisco, but then I went to London, and I was like, Nope. It’s here! (Laughs)

Burn-Murdoch: Oh, yeah. A hundred percent. But what’s really interesting is when you look at the two key numbers here: population growth and house building.

There are several countries in the Western world where the rate of population growth in the last 10 years has been higher than it has in the U.K., for example, but where they’ve built even more houses and, therefore, the number of people per household has continued to fall or houses per person has risen. So it’s absolutely important that even progressives recognize that if you’re a person who’s worried about house prices and rents, and who wants more housing, then you also have to acknowledge that, of course, in terms of simple supply and demand, immigration puts some pressure on in this situation.

But I think it’s, also, countries have a huge amount of control over the second part of that equation. And there are other countries, similarly rich countries, who are dealing with similar or even larger rates of population growth but are simply building more homes and, therefore, dealing with the situation.

Demsas: Yeah. I think it’s such a problem, though, because demand is both more visible to people—growth in demand, growth in population. So demand for housing that feels more like, if you’re like looking for a house, and you see that there’s 30 people in line, you talk to someone in line, and they’re from California and you’re in Nashville, Tennessee, that feels really tangible to you. And it’s very hard to see the supply side of the equation.

I think there’s a truth to the fact that in the short run, increase in demand is really harmful. But we also have to admit that—given that construction jobs and the construction industry, at least in the United States, is highly driven by immigrant labor—there’s also something to the equation there.

But we’ve talked a lot about housing, which is something that I’m going to do basically on every single podcast I host. But one thing that is also really important—we’ve touched on it a couple of times, but I don’t think we’ve really addressed it—is: What is the role of the media in driving coverage on immigration?

My general sense of things when people rag on the media is, Well, you’re reading it, you’re watching it, so you’re contributing to the demand of what you’re looking at right there. But at the same time, you can’t deny that there are efforts when people are trying to win elections or they think that there should be fewer immigrants in the country, for whatever political reason or project that they have, and they want to increase salience of the issues they care about. And so I don’t think it’s necessarily, like, illicit project. It’s just the way that media functions.

But in your sense, how does the media affect views on immigration? Because of the rise in right-wing media contingent there, too—I mean, how does that play into all of this?

Burn-Murdoch: It’s a tricky one to unpack. So, what’s always tricky with this media stuff is: To what extent is the media reflecting versus shaping public opinion?

And the U.K. has been an interesting case study here because between around 1990 and 2015–16—so just before the EU referendum—two things were true. It was true that the percentage of people saying that immigration was one of the most pressing issues in the U.K. and the actual number of people arriving in the U.K. tracked each other very, very closely. So that’s, like, a 25-year period where you could look at that and say, Okay, what seems to be happening here is the numbers of people arriving are driving concern.

But then after the EU referendum, those two lines completely diverged, and the numbers of people coming to the U.K. continued to be pretty high. They actually rose. But the number of people saying that immigration was one of the top issues just fell off a cliff. It went from sort of 45 percent to 10 percent at the same time as the actual numbers of immigration were rising.

And now, if you swap out the actual immigration numbers, though, and swap in the percentage of headlines in the Daily Mail, which is a right-leaning newspaper in the U.K.—if you swap in the number of times the Daily Mail runs stories about immigration, then not only do the two lines rise together between 1990 and 2015, but they also fall together between 2015 and 2020.

So looking at that would certainly suggest that what the public are expressing concerns about is a reflection of what’s being covered in the media. However, some social scientists who’ve looked at this stuff—their pushback on that is, Well, it’s not just that people suddenly stopped caring about immigration after 2015–16. It’s that other concerns pushed that down the list, as it were.

So the U.K., for the next three years, was completely obsessed with, Okay, what’s Brexit going to look like? There was also, of course, then the pandemic, where COVID pushed all the other concerns down. So some people have looked at this and said, Well, maybe immigration actually did remain a big concern in line with numbers. It’s just that people were concerned about even more things.

Now, I’m pretty skeptical of that. That’s partly just because the drop-off was so steep—the drop-off in concern with immigration, that is. Sorry. It’s partly because when you look at levels of concern with immigration in 2008–09—i.e. during the midst of a generational financial crisis—concern with immigration was still high then, even though you had all of this other stuff going on around you.

And then the third reason I mention this is that the U.K. and U.S. are both right now dealing with all these other things: the cost-of-living crisis, economic sentiment in general. And yet right now, in the U.S., about 27-28 percent of people put immigration as the number-one concern, whereas in the U.K., it’s only 11 percent. So that’s a long-winded way of saying it looks like the media and political discussion around immigration is doing more than just reflecting actual numbers and is also doing more to drive concern than the actual numbers.

Demsas: Yeah, I mean, it’s obviously a multifactorial, dynamic process. And the media’s reactions to things, even the idea of the media as a whole, is difficult to talk about in meaningful ways. You can think about average effects, but even then you’re obscuring so much difference that’s going on.

In general, when I think about how the media reacts to events, it is often driven by things that are visually alarming. So if you have something that is visually alarming, it often will attract a ton of attention, even over stories that may have a larger impact. And so when you actually had a caravan or the bus or whatever that people were tracking, that was media bait. That’s just the sort of thing that CNN wants to just cover for 10 hours a day.

And then, obviously very similar to that, when you have folks literally sleeping on the floors of police precincts in Chicago when there were not enough places for them to be housed, that is also something that is really visually arresting and can grab viewers and maybe then gets over-covered in a way that may not otherwise be commensurate to how much of an impact that it’s having on, you know—or the number of flows or whatever.

And so I can see that many ways that you would end up having media attention focus on things that are visually arresting. But then, it becomes a weird question because the things that are visually arresting are the things that people care about, right? That’s the sort of thing that people’s attention gravitates towards. So yeah, I definitely think that the question of this media involvement is interesting, and I think it’s definitely something that there’s been a bunch more research about but is really, really unsettled.

But this seems like a great place to wrap up. Always our final question: What is something that was good on paper originally but maybe didn’t pan out for you in the end?

Burn-Murdoch: Right. So the question here is how completely off-piste can I go here?

Demsas: Go completely off-base. It usually is, actually.

Burn-Murdoch: Okay. So the one I was thinking of was many, many, many years ago. I was, I think, 18 or 19 years old, and I’d just been around a friend’s house in the next little village outside the town I lived in. And I was heading back home late in the afternoon, maybe early evening, and I thought, Right, there’s two ways I can get home here. I was on my bicycle, and I thought, Right, I can either go the long, winding way, or I go on these slightly bigger roads, but much quicker. And I thought, Well, I’ve got to get home soon. I’m going to go the quicker route. And so I set off cycling along this road.

And the road started getting a little bit busier, and then some of the signage on the road started changing. And, basically, about halfway through this 30-minute journey, I realized this road had turned into a motorway—

Demsas: Oh, my God.

Burn-Murdoch: —which is, in U.S. speak, one of the main highways, six lanes kind of thing. And about a couple of minutes after I realized the situation, I then realized that I was being pulled over by the police—

Demsas: Oh, God. (Laughs.)

Burn-Murdoch: —for cycling on this road. And, luckily for me, the police were very kind and basically said, Get off your bike. Come off at the next exit, and we’ll leave it at that. And, luckily for me, the next exit was where I was going, anyway, so I got away with it.

Demsas: That’s actually one of those stories that feels like it could have gone very badly.

Burn-Murdoch: Oh, yeah, in so many different ways.

Demsas: Well, I’m glad you’re still with us, John, and thank you for coming on the show. I really appreciate it.

Burn-Murdoch: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed the conversation.

[Music]

Demsas: Good on Paper is produced by Jinae West. It was edited by Dave Shaw, fact-checked by Ena Alvarado, and engineered by Erica Huang. Claudine Ebeid is the executive producer of Atlantic audio, and Andrea Valdez is our managing editor.

And hey, if you like what you’re hearing, please do leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. That’s how people hear about the show. Or share it with a couple of friends who you think might like it, as well.

I’m Jerusalem Demsas, and we’ll see you next week.

The Atlantic

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