Immigration and Trust

Do we only really trust people who are like us? And if so, is that a mistake?

Distrust of the unfamiliar and the foreign is a natural survival mechanism for most species, including the human species. But, if empirical evidence is worth anything, a reflexive distrust of the foreigner cannot be said to be equally benign. Distrust sows fear. And fear plays in the hands of demagogues and can turn into a contagious pathology with numerous undesirable consequences.

One of these consequences is an excess of caution. Safety is important but an obsession with safety is counterproductive. Locking your door at night is prudent, but fear of ever leaving your house can lead to atrophy and other physical and mental degradations. As in most things, a fine calibration between the desire for safety and the need to accept minimal risks is likely to yield the best outcome.

Qualifying Immigrants

This calibration is proving difficult for some people in matters of immigration and of acceptance of the foreign-born, especially when terrorism and unemployment are factors to be considered. What is a fine calibration in this case? By definition it means accepting certain people but not others. But then what should be the dividing lines?

To some, it makes sense to only admit immigrants who are skilled professionals. To others, though they may not openly admit it, it makes sense to admit certain nationalities or religions but not others. Because some people look or sound or dress differently, some people want to limit their entry into the United States. Opinions on whom to admit seem to depend on one’s own personal traits, politics, family history and life experience.

The willingness to trust one specific immigrant would probably facilitate that one immigrant’s integration into American society but such willingness is not required for the country to accept immigrants in general. In other words, the idea that we need to trust each and every immigrant, as suggested by “extreme vetting”, is of limited value, given that we cannot conclusively vet people with no history of malfeasance. Conversely, it is entirely plausible that we will extreme-vet and accept some immigrants who will end up being criminals anyway. The virtue test can stop people with a record of crime and terrorism. But regarding others, it is a futile effort until we unlock the code, if there is such a thing, that identifies a person as a future criminal or terrorist before they commit a crime or act of terror.

Instead we may look at immigrants in general and accept that there will be among them a certain percentage of criminals, as there is in any sizable group of people. Instead of a zero-crime target, the goal should be if possible to ensure that immigrants on average do not commit more crimes than Americans. In fact we are there already, with research showing that, on the whole today, immigrants commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.

As to foreign terrorism, 9/11 showed on a large scale and in vivid pictures the terrorists’ intention to cause as many victims as possible. Can we then create a watertight admission policy that keeps all terrorists outside the country? It is a very difficult and moving goal, given our porous borders and the fact that some terrorists have been American-born citizens.

After 9/11, there were far fewer foreign terror attacks on US soil than we feared on the morning of 9/12. This is mainly thanks to our government, military and counter-terrorism agencies that have worked tirelessly to make the country safer. But it is also true that all but a tiny percentage of people from anywhere simply want to go about their daily business, to raise their children and attend to their jobs. Their chief motivations are economic and social, not ideological.

Circles of Trust

To an American with little exposure to foreign-born citizens (say a resident of the rural Midwest), levels of trust could be configured as concentric circles. Trust and reciprocity would be closest nearer the center and would get diffused in the outer circles. So for an American of German descent for example, the inner circle beyond family and close friends would be other locals of German descent. The next circle out would be people of Central and Northern European origin and the next would be those of Southern and Eastern European descent.

Then would come non Europeans, in random order Americans of Hispanic, Middle-Eastern, African, Indian, Chinese or other Asian origins. Depending on one’s own experiences and biases, the people in the outermost circle would be any one of these. To the German-American therefore, a Swede may feel a bit more foreign than a fellow German, but closer to him than an Italian. And the Italian may appear quite different to him until someone even more different, say a Japanese or Indian, wheels into town.

A similar configuration would apply to religion. An evangelical Christian may not feel much kinship if left alone in a room with a Catholic, but his affinity towards that same Catholic may grow if people from more distant religions subsequently enter the room.

Applied to nationalities, this concentric configuration is mirrored by the results of a survey conducted by Gallup that asked Americans which countries they viewed favorably or unfavorably. The results are shown in the table below.

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The countries perceived as being most like the United States were looked on most favorably by Americans, followed by non-Muslim allies and friends. A third group could be described as strategic friends around the world. Then, a fourth group of Muslim allies and former Communist states.

It is interesting to note here that although the US has long standing friendships with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others, fewer than a third of Americans view these countries favorably. This divide is probably reversed for the last group where the US has adversarial relations with the governments of Syria, Iran and North Korea but Americans tend to view their citizens more favorably than these figures suggest.

An Immigrant, not an Ambassador

These are Americans’ views of the listed countries. The question is does it make sense to project those views on immigrants originating from these countries? In other words, if Americans view Libya unfavorably, does it make sense that they should view Libyan immigrants unfavorably?

Immigrants are self-selecting and are therefore inherently different from their compatriots who stay in the home country. In addition, immigrants have put their faith in the American system by electing to come to America instead of another country. On the whole, the notion that our perception of immigrants should differ from our perception of their country of origin deserves more consideration than it is currently given. The first step of becoming an American occurs in the act of emigration.

Our internal mapping of trust as a series of concentric circles may feel comfortable but it has serious limitations. If we rely too much on it, we run the risk of wallowing in our comfort zone to the point of atrophy while missing out on the fresh ideas brought by outsiders. Richard V. Reeves, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently wrote that:

When people live in communities where almost everyone looks, thinks, and lives alike, communal sympathy is likely to be replaced by tribalism.

Further, it could be argued that immigrants and other outsiders, when properly motivated, can act as a check on cronyism and the dominance of old boys or other legacy networks and on similarly debilitating social and economic distortions.

Meanwhile, among professional elites, trust increasingly forms between people of varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds who have a shared education, mission and work ethic. Here the concentric circles are more centered on a corporation or organization and radiate out first to corporate partners, clients and suppliers, then to individuals at competing firms and finally to persons in unrelated businesses.

Our notions of trust are deviating from those harbored by our parents and ancestors. They are evolving rapidly and will continue to evolve with new technology and accelerated communications.

Further reading:

Interesting facts on immigration from the Center for American Progress.

Fact check: Immigration doesn’t bring crime into U.S., data say.