Borders of Compassion: How Nationalists Can Embrace Immigration

Over the past century, the U.S. and other high-income countries have 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 receiving and sending countries, elected officials dismiss any possibility of relaxing these restrictions as politically unfeasible. Borders of Compassion examines under what conditions most voters in rich democracies—who genuinely care about the well-being of their compatriots—would accept more open immigration policies. The book looks beyond the stereotype of inherently xenophobic voters and considers the role of altruism toward compatriots as a central driver of both opposition to and support of immigration.

Building on original surveys and incentivized experiments with real money at stake, the book reveals that most 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, and especially those who are more altruistic, tend to oppose immigration when they believe it threatens the well-being of their compatriots. The book also shows, however, that most people are willing to embrace increased immigration when it is clearly in their nation’s interest. As Borders of Compassion suggests, adopting select pro-immigration regulations that benefit the national economy would not just be good policy—it could also be good politics since surprisingly few voters on the left and the right dislike immigration for its own sake.

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