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Appealing to our humanitarian side makes us more pro-immigrant

Signs At The May Day Immigration Rights Rally
Signs At The May Day Immigration Rights Rally
Flickr/ takomabibelot

People who are moved by issues pertaining to the needs of people who are less well off are likely to support relaxed immigration policies, says new research. These ‘humanitarians” maintain support for the issue, pretty much regardless of their political leanings.

Further, making an appeal on humanitarian grounds on the issue of immigration helps sway people to support more relaxed policies. Much like fundraising for charities, people are drawn to stories that describe the hardships endured by immigrants.

Research already exists to understand why people oppose immigration and the laws that will make it easier. Less studied are the people who support immigrant friendly policies.

Until now.

The new research comes from a group of Political Scientists, Benjamin J. Newman, Todd K. Hartman, Patrick L. Lown and Stanley Feldman. In a study published in the British Journal of Political Science, the four created their own survey and used existing poll data to see how people with humanitarian values view immigration.

Humanitarians are defined as individuals with “a sense of concern for the welfare of one’s fellow human beings, and leads to the belief of personal responsibility to help those who are in need.” Evidence already exists that the humanitarian types are more likely to support social welfare policies and relief for people in need.

People who are more empathetic turned out to have greater support for permissive immigration policies. In one of the surveys, people from North Carolina were presented variations on a press release announcing that the US would begin allowing more Hondurans to immigrate into their state.

There were four different releases given to the people in the survey. Two involved different information that described the threats posed by the new immigrants (ie. taking jobs, making people less safe, etc.). The third release made a humanitarian appeal describing the terrible conditions and poverty faced by the potential immigrants. The fourth release had both information about the threats and humanitarian obstacles.

A fifth release was given as a control for the experiment where no information was provided about the immigrants aside from basic facts about Honduras. The findings were as expected, people reading about the threats were less supportive of immigration and people who read about the humanitarian challenges were more supportive.

However, the people who read both were less likely to want to restrict immigration. That means that adding information that appeals to the humanitarian side of individuals, even when faced with fear-based information, will cause people to be supportive of immigration.

“We..learned that humanitarianism is not simply a static individual difference in the electorate; rather, humanitarian concern can be cultivated with narratives that explore the reasons that immigrants leave their home countries in search of the “American Dream,”” wrote the authors in the Monkey Cage blog.

Media, in the end, matters significantly in affecting attitudes about immigration. It is possible that the same can be said about global poverty. Telling the stories that evoke feelings of empathy lead viewers to feel more supportive of those they are reading about or seeing.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]