Borders of Compassion: How Nationalists Can Embrace Immigration

My APSA award-winning book project, entitled Borders of Compassion, examines under what conditions most people in rich democracies—who genuinely care about the well-being of their compatriots—would accept more open and humane immigration policies.

Over the past century, governments in rich countries have increasingly adopted severe immigration restrictions, effectively banning most of the world’s willing workers from moving there. Despite the well-documented costs of closed borders to both receiving and sending countries, national polls report that voters do not want to relax the existing restrictions and, accordingly, elected officials tend to dismiss any possibility of increasing immigration as “politically unfeasible.” Many scholars and pundits alike further worry that any pro-immigration change can be counter-productive and lead to a populist surge such as that behind Trump or Brexit.

This book looks beyond the common stereotype of inherently xenophobic voters and considers the role of genuine altruism toward compatriots as a central driver of both public support and opposition to freer immigration. Building on original surveys and experiments from the United Kingdom and the United States, I reveal that many people are “altruistic nationalists”—they are often willing to incur a personal cost to benefit others, but they prioritize helping their fellow citizens. As a result, voters tend to favor harsh restrictions on immigration because they perceive such restrictions as necessary to secure the well-being of their compatriots. Since human mobility can be as much an opportunity as a threat, however, I also demonstrate how these widespread patriotic sentiments that currently make people wary of immigration can lead them to embrace it under alternative policy conditions.

Given the apparent failure of efforts to change negative perceptions of immigration, my results suggest that a more effective democratic way to move forward on the issue is to identify less restrictive policies that more explicitly and straightforwardly benefit average citizens. At the same time, simply reducing immigration without addressing the underlying material or cultural concerns may not necessarily appease those who currently oppose immigration or vote for populist parties. As my book optimistically suggests, adopting more evidence-based regulations to advance national interest would not just be good policy—it could also be good politics since surprisingly few voters on both the left and the right dislike immigration for its own sake.

Parts of the book project have been previously published in the following forms: