immigrants; misperceptions; undocumented immigration; stereotypes; ignorance


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 off 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 support for a hypothetical restrictionist migration policy. 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 more strongly associated with restrictionist attitudes. Contrary to the misperceptions 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.