As governments around the world face increasingly complex migration challenges, the difference between success and failure can often hinge on the ability of policymakers to win and maintain public trust. When there is little or no trust in a government’s ability to manage immigration, the capacity to test creative immigration and integration ideas is severely curtailed, and the penalties for missteps become disproportionately higher. In fact, the persistent belief that government is unequal to the task of managing immigration well—that the system is ‘broken’—is the greatest threat to public confidence in the immigration arena. This threat cannot be underestimated. Even an immigration system that in fact delivers most of its programmes well can be thought to be failing if the public perceives significant disorder in a major component of its portfolio.
Factors that can erode public trust encompass both external forces and the structure of government itself. While politicians and public servants responsible for migration cannot control external factors such as war and other forms of conflict, instability, and vast opportunity differentials that may give rise to large-scale migration—they can address a host of interlinked governance challenges that affect how management of immigration is perceived by the public. Ways to build public trust include developing immigration policies that reflect public priorities (and articulating those priorities clearly); implementing immigrant integration policies that foster social cohesion and maximise the potential gains from migration; minimising illegal flows and ensuring that inflows are legal, orderly, and not so large that they overwhelm public infrastructure; and building more productive relationships with countries of immigrant origin and transit.
More specifically, two aspects of migration management systems are particularly important for public trust: the ability to select a significant majority of a country’s newcomers, and to properly assess asylum claims for those who present themselves at a country’s external borders. Unlike Canada and Australia, the United States and most European states get the majority of their immigrants through channels over which they have limited or no control—namely family (re)unification and the international protection system. The United States constantly contends with another immigration stream that undermines its system’s legitimacy: illegal immigration. In recent decades, illegal immigration has accounted for roughly 20 to 30 percent of the US foreign-born population. In Europe, although as many as half of asylum applicants in a given year may not qualify for protection, failed claimants are difficult to remove and thus are seen as succeeding in ‘gaming the system’. Unsurprisingly, the effect of these trends in undermining public trust—and broader support for immigration—is massive.
A government, however, cannot manage complex challenges alone. Without the trust and buy-in of key civil society and thoughtful advocacy groups, a government’s ability to explain and gain support for its policies can be seriously hampered. Creating and maintaining a positive narrative around immigration is exceptionally difficult, and must include several elements: (1) presenting a clear, easily understood plan for policy reforms that will benefit the society at large; (2) demonstrating that the government takes seriously its responsibilities to protect borders and reduce abuses of the immigration system; (3) setting realistic goals rather than pursuing a level of perfection that sets the government up for failure—such as the goal of zero illegal immigration (an intermittent element of U.S. political rhetoric) or specific (low) immigration levels when the government has no control over a large component of such flows (the United Kingdom in recent years); (4) addressing head-on the tensions and difficulties caused by the rapid pace of change in local communities that large-scale immigration brings; and (5) clearly explaining tradeoffs so that the public understands the drivers and consequences of policy decisions.
The most important way to secure public trust, however, is to show results. Providing accessible and full information on immigration programs and the results that policies yield is at the heart of this challenge—in addition to taking on board and addressing the concerns of those who lose out as a result of immigration. The benefit of following these rules is simple: navigating treacherous policy fields is easier with the support of the public behind you.
The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the original author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views and opinions of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, its co-founders, or its staff members.