Why are Americans so divided on refugee policy?

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Global and Strategic Marketing Research Centre

Shilpa Madan is an adjunct research scholar at Columbia Business School. Aneeta Rattan is an assistant professor in organizational behavior at London Business School. Shankha Basu is assistant professor in marketing at Leeds University Business School. Krishna Savani is an associate professor of strategy, management, and organizations, and codirector of the Culture Science Institute at Nanyang Business School, Singapore. This article originally appeared on the Behavioral Scientist.

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The U.S. will resettle the lowest number of refugees in fiscal year 2019 since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980. After taking office, President Donald Trump reduced the admission limit from 110,000 in 2017 to 45,000 in 2018, and to 30,000 in 2019. The reduction is not a result of fewer refugees seeking resettlement. On the contrary, the number of people seeking resettlement is on the rise.

Seeing images of war-ravaged Syria or coverage of the children affected by displacement and separation evokes empathy and horror in virtually everyone. However, people across the world remain divided on the question of opening their nation to refugees. There are many reasons why people might oppose refugee resettlement—economic and job concerns, safety and security issues, and bias against people from certain cultures, to name a few.

Coverage of the children affected by displacement and separation evokes empathy and horror in virtually everyone. However, people around the world remain divided on the question of opening their nation to refugees.

One concern that has been documented is citizens' belief that refugees do not assimilate into the host society. An assimilationist ideology requires migrants to take on the new nation's culture and let go of their home culture. A 2017 reportreleased by the Trump administration echoed this ideology—an individual's ability to assimilate into U.S. culture is now considered as part of their application for resettlement. This is the first time that the word assimilationhas been used in the U.S. refugee policy.

What drives this outlook? We conducted a series of psychological studies to better understand why people believe that refugees would not be able to assimilate. We found that a powerful yet previously overlooked factor is people's general beliefs about individuals' ability to change—i.e., whether people think it's possible to change the kind of person you are.

Across our studies, we surveyed 2,340 U.S. and U.K. citizens. We asked them about different refugee policies and their beliefs about others' ability to change. In some cases, we used experiments to temporarily shape these beliefs.

To measure participants' beliefs about change, we asked them to indicate how much they agreed with statements such as, "The kind of person someone is, is something very basic about them and it can't be changed very much," and, "People can change even their most basic qualities." Past research shows that in general, about 40 to 45 percent of individuals believe that people can change. Another 40 to 45 percent believe that people do not have the ability to change. The rest are undecided.

The more citizens believed that people, in general, can change, the more they supported policies in favor of resettling refugees.

Then, we asked people to indicate their support or opposition to real refugee resettlement policies. For example, in one study participants read about President Obama's 2016 policy of increasing the number of refugees, and in another study they read about President Trump's 2017 measures to reduce the number of refugees. Then, they were asked how much they supported these policies. U.K. participants read about polices that were under discussion at that time in their country.

Across all of these studies, we found a consistent pattern. The more citizens believed that people, in general, can change, the more they supported policies in favor of resettling refugees. We found these effects consistently among both U.S. and U.K. citizens responding to policies in their respective nations. We also found these effects within the U.S. across people who identified as both liberals and conservatives.

The ability to assimilate

Does believing people can change unfairly oblige the refugees to give up their home culture? To explore this idea further, we asked participants a range of questions about whether they believe that refugees can assimilate in the society (i.e., have the ability to assimilate) or that refugees should assimilate (i.e., have an obligation to assimilate). We found that believing in people's ability to change fosters the belief that refugees can assimilate, but not that they should assimilate. In other words, the belief that people can change does notfoster the assimilationist ideology that would demand refugees to give up their home culture and customs. Instead, it fosters the sense that they can adapt to the new culture without demanding that they give up their background in order to do so. 

So are refugees, in general, able to assimilate? Statistics on assimilation are hard to come by because data on cultural assimilation—the food people eat, their language, styles of social interaction etc.—are not well documented. Hence, the criteria for what counts as assimilation are subjective and difficult to quantify and measure.

How nations set policies on resettling refugees is often framed as a measure of their compassion. Yet our research suggests it may instead be a result of their beliefs about whether or not people can change.

This research generates important questions about how countries set their refugee policies. For example, it would be important to investigate whether the same patterns arise in the context of people's support for immigration in general, and whether the patterns vary depending upon what nations refugees come from. Theoretically, citizens may think people from cultures that are very different from one's own culture might have a harder time assimilating, and hence, may be less likely to support resettling refugees from those countries. This remains an open question.

How nations set policies on resettling refugees is often framed as a measure of their compassion. Yet our research suggests it may instead be a result of their beliefs about whether or not people can change. A foundational belief in America, and many other countries of the world, is that people can, through effort and action, drastically change themselves and improve their lives. Our research suggests that when it comes to the question of whether refugees will get these opportunities, policymakers and advocates need to emphasize the fundamental idea of malleability that sits at the core of this nation's past, and refugees' futures.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Madan, S., Basu, S., Rattan, A., & Savani, K. (2019). Support for Resettling Refugees: The Role of Fixed Versus Growth Mind-Sets. Psychological Science, 30(2), 238–249. (Link)

This article originally appeared on the Behavioral Scientist.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.