Americans vastly overestimate the number of illegal immigrants

By on January 9, 2012

Americans are very confused about how many immigrants there are and “vastly overestimate the percentage of fellow residents who are foreign-born, by more than a factor of two, and the percentage who are in the country illegally, by a factor of six or seven.” Initially that sounds like an optimistic finding. Maybe the reason my fellow Americans don’t share my interest in liberalizing immigration rules is that they’re mis-informed and a few facts will turn them around.

John Sides and Jack Citrin find (PDF) that this strategy almost certainly won’t work:

The public is prone to overestimate the size of minority group populations. Does providing information about the actual size of populations affect attitudes towards those groups? We investigate innumeracy about immigrant populations. As in previous studies, we find that people tend to overestimate the size of the foreign-born population, and that these estimates are associated with an individual’s formal education and with the number of immigrants in the surrounding context. Then, in two different survey experiments, we test whether information about immigrants affects attitudes—either by correcting these overestimates or by priming the annual level of immigration. In both experiments, the information influenced attitudes very little. We conclude by noting the potential limits of “information effects” on mass attitudes.

Via Matt Yglesias.  More here.