immigrants; misperceptions; undocumented immigration; stereotypes; ignorance; United States; Western Europe


There exists a well-documented tendency among citizens to perceive immigrant populations as much larger than indicated by official statistics. This misperception has been linked to desires to halt the flow of immigration or restrict immigrants’ rights, raising concern about the consequences of pervasive faulty information. However, ignorance extends beyond questions of population size. There are also many qualitative misperceptions upon which individuals base their opinions about foreigners. In particular, citizens are likely to hold incorrect perceptions about the legal status of the typical immigrant (i.e., documented vs undocumented). The current study takes a unique approach by simultaneously examining both quantitative and qualitative forms of ignorance, and assessing their associations with respondents’ willingness to exclude migrants. Using a sample of 2,363 from the 2011 Transatlantic Trends Immigration Survey gathered in six countries – the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy – this study finds high levels of both forms of ignorance. However, legal status misperceptions exhibit greater variation across countries and are strongly associated with more exclusionary attitudes. Contrary to the extant literature, size misperceptions are only weakly associated with the outcome. Overall, the results highlight a need for a more complete understanding of the totality of misperceptions to elucidate the connection between ignorance and anti-immigrant attitudes.