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Politics

The imaginary immigrant hordes

Catherine Rampell on

WASHINGTON -- Hide your wife, hide your husband, hide your child! The immigrant hordes are already here!

Or so lots of Americans believe -- making it easier for politicians and fringe "alt-right" white-supremacist groups to seize on these fears and exploit them for political gain.

The share of people in the United States who were born abroad has been rising over the past several decades, reaching 13.4 percent in 2015. (The highest share recorded was in 1890, at 14.8 percent.) Perceived levels of immigration, however, are several multiples of that number and have been so for a while.

The 2013 Transatlantic Trends survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, for example, asked people across 13 countries to estimate the percentage of their national population that was born abroad.

In every country for which reliable population numbers were available, survey respondents vastly overestimated the number of foreign-born people walking among them. This was especially true in the United States.

Perhaps reflecting our nickname as a "nation of immigrants," Americans mistakenly thought that 42 percent of people in this country had been born abroad. For those keeping score at home, that's three times the actual immigrant population share.

Those numbers are a few years old. The imagined scourge of scary not-like-me multitudes remains.

In 2015, Ipsos MORI's Perils of Perception survey asked a similar question in 32 countries and found similar results: Nearly everywhere, people overestimated the share of immigrants. U.S. citizens' guesstimate for the immigrant share was lower in this survey, though, at "only" 33 percent.

Then this past fall, Ipsos MORI polled people across 39 countries about their estimates of the Muslim population.

In all but two countries, people overstated the share of their Muslim population.

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