Refugees in the Mind of the West
AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic
Refugees in the Mind of the West
AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic

Bruce Stokes is director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center and an associate fellow at Chatham House. This piece is part of a special RCW series on America’s role in the world during the Trump administration. The views expressed are the author's own.

Story Stream
recent articles

The Trump administration’s executive order temporarily banning admission to the United States for refugees and emigres from seven Muslim-majority countries was a reminder that immigration has been a hotly contested issue in American politics at various times in both the 19th and 20th centuries. Surges of people arriving from abroad have often raised questions about the social impact of new arrivals, about cultural diversity, and about what it means to be a “true” American.

Yet, in the international backlash in reaction to President Donald Trump’s executive order -- not to mention the intervention of the U.S. court system -- it is easy to forget that debates over refugees and national identity trouble many societies, particularly in Europe.

Inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor is the Emma Lazarus poem offering refuge to the world’s downtrodden: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” And in 2015, 13.9 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born. But the American public has often been opposed to accepting large numbers of refugees.

In January 2017, 46 percent of Americans said a large number of refugees leaving Syria and Iraq posed a major threat to the United States. Earlier, in October 2016, 54 percent of registered voters said the U.S. does not have a responsibility to accept refugees from Syria.

Moreover, U.S. public opinion polls from previous decades show Americans have largely opposed admitting large numbers of refugees fleeing war and oppression. In 1958, 55 percent of Americans disapproved of a plan to admit 65,000 refugees who escaped the Communist regime in Hungary. And in 1979, in the wake of the Vietnam War, 62 percent disapproved of the government’s plan to double the number of refugees admitted each month from Indochina.

Yet Americans are not alone in being worried about refugees. Today, many Europeans are concerned about the security risk posed by recent waves of refugees from the Middle East. In spring 2016, more than seven in ten Hungarians (76 percent) and Poles (71 percent), and roughly six in ten Dutch (61 percent), Germans (61 percent) and Italians (60 percent) believed that refugees arriving from Syria and Iraq would increase the likelihood of terrorism in their country.

Despite their views about refugees, being native-born is not necessarily core to Americans’ sense of national identity. Only 32 percent say that having been born in the United States is very important for being considered truly American. Language is judged to be a much more significant requisite of nationality: Seventy percent voice the view that it is very important that a person speak English. At the same time, more than four in ten (45 percent) believe that sharing American customs and traditions are very important. And 32 percent hold that being Christian is very important to being a true American.  

It is noteworthy that there is not much partisan difference over the link between the land of one’s birth and U.S. national identity. Roughly a third of Republicans (35 percent) and Democrats (32 percent) say being born in the United States is very important. There is a greater partisan divide over language, culture, and religion. Eight in ten Republicans (83 percent) say language proficiency is a very important requisite for being truly American. Fewer Democrats (61 percent) agree. Among Republicans, 60 percent say that for a person to be considered a true American it is very important that he or she share U.S. culture. Only 38 percent of Democrats agree. And while more than four in ten Republicans (43 percent) say that being Christian is a very important part of being an American, only 29 percent of Democrats share this view.

By comparison, in several European countries, the emphasis on birthplace as a marker of national identity is greater than in America. For example, roughly half the people surveyed in Hungary (52 percent) and Greece (50 percent) hold the view that it is very important to being a true national, as do 42 percent of those polled in both Poland and Italy.

To Europeans, speaking the local language is more important to national identity than birthplace. Majorities in all 10 European nations surveyed by the Pew Research Center in 2016 said that it is very important to be able to converse in a country’s official language, ranging from 84 percent of the Dutch to 59 percent of Italians. Fewer believe that adhering to local customs and traditions is essential: in only five of the European countries surveyed do half or more say this is very important. And relatively few Europeans think being Christian is a requisite for belonging to their respective nations. Only in Greece do more than half (54 percent) characterize religion as very important to national identity.

America is a land of immigrants. But the United States also has a history of wariness of refugees. However, publics in a number of European countries hold far more restrictive views of national identity. While travel bans may not be on the horizon for most European countries, European and American views on what it takes to be truly “one of us” suggest that immigration will remain a hot-topic political issue on both sides of the Atlantic for some time to come.