Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
A new study finds that a collective action problem plagues support for settling displaced people in America.
In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s chaotic January order to ban travelers from a handful of Muslim-majority countries and suspend refugee arrivals, protesters flocked to airports and flooded city streets, holding up signs welcoming refugees and opposing Trump’s policy. From D.C. to Boise, multilingual signs popped up in front yards, reassuring immigrants and refugees that their neighbors were glad to have them.
As it turns out, these sentiments may not always run too deep.
A new study by researchers at Dartmouth College finds that Americans are more likely to support refugee resettlement nationally than in their own locales. This attitude was consistent across demographic profiles, ideologies, and geography. It also did not correspond with characteristics of the participants’ immediate environments—so factors like population density, unemployment, or concentration of refugees in the county did not seem to matter.
In other words, the idea of refugee resettlement appears to be well and good in abstract. But like in the case of housing for low-income black and brown people, even liberals may take on a not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) attitude when it is closer to home.
“While [refugee] policies are national in scope, their impact is primarily local,” Jeremy Ferwerda, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth, who co-authored the study, said in a statement. “Yet citizens who ostensibly support these humanitarian policies appear to be less comfortable with the possibility of hosting refugees within their own communities.”
The study, which was published in Science Advances, surveyed 2,295 participants in February 2017. The participants were randomly divided into three groups. The control group received no news clips to read. Of the other two, one was asked to read news associating refugee settlement with security threats, and the other was asked to read evidence falsifying that link. Then, they were asked to rate their support for local and national resettlement. Across the board, participants noted higher support for the latter.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t support local resettlement at all. It does mean that their support gets weaker as the debate moves from the national to local stage, allowing room for political resistance at the local level.
The second part of the experiment gauged how the media narratives influenced attitudes towards refugees. The findings here were pretty grim: The negative news stories had a more powerful effect on depressing overall support for resettlement than the positive ones had in boosting it. “Our results provide clear evidence that pro-resettlement advocates may be wise to focus their appeals on other considerations (for example, humanitarianism) rather than directly attempting to refute security arguments,” the authors write in the paper. A slim silver lining: proximity to refugees tended to blunt the effect of negative news. So folks who actually had refugee neighbors were less likely to perceive refugees as threats. This finding is consistent with previous research showing that contact with someone of a different race or gender, even just for ten minutes, can reduce prejudice. Trump voters, for example, didn’t live near any Mexican immigrants. It also explains why residential segregation within cities is such an important factor in fueling misperceptions about communities of color.
That said, exposure is not a silver bullet. Having a high concentration of refugees in their county did not insulate participants in the Dartmouth study from NIMBYism, nor did it appear to hike support for resettlement.
The findings of the Dartmouth study
The January executive order, which is due for a Supreme Court review, sought to cap the total refugees taken in by the U.S. at 50,000. Vice News reports that Trump is likely to go forward with that plan, bringing the country’s refugee number to a historic low in a time when humanitarian crises engulf other parts of the world. But there’s another, more overlooked part of the executive order that advocates may find concerning: The administration intends for state and local governments to “have greater involvement” in the resettlement process.
Now, states and local governments are already consulted on the resettlement process, and receive federal funds to carry it out. They can limit their assistance and make the process very difficult—as many threatened to do at the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015. By law, they can’t refuse to accept refugees altogether. But that doesn’t mean the president—who’s invested with broad power to with respect to refugee policy—cannot find new, creative ways to heed the requests of refugee-averse local governments, explains Rick Su, a professor of immigration and local government at the University of Buffalo.
If their constituents continue to think that refugee settlement is someone else’s problem, they’re not likely to push back if their local or and state legislators reject resettlement. The authors of the Dartmouth paper write: “If such a system is established, our results suggest that the resettlement program will likely encounter profound challenges in distributing refugees across the country.”