The Corner

Do the Social Values of Migrants Matter?

One subject I find very interesting is how people are able to reconcile ideas that, on the surface, at least, seem to be in tension. Recently, I observed that many American liberals favor large-scale less-skilled immigration from the developing world while also believing that domestic inequality and climate change are the most pressing problems facing the United States. This is a bit odd, as we have good reason to believe that large-scale less-skilled immigration exacerbates domestic inequality and that it contributes to rising global carbon emissions. In a similar vein, it occurs to me that just as many American liberals have embraced the cause of equal rights for lesbians, gays, and non-gender-conforming people, many are also calling for the large-scale resettlement of refugees who might not feel the same way. Integration Hub, a UK outfit that studies the impact of immigration and ethnic diversity on British society, tracks social attitudes, and one of their findings struck me as noteworthy:

Some ethnic minority groups have strong reservations about homosexuality, according to data from EMBES. For Pakistanis, 48 per cent thought it was wrong compared to 50 per cent of Bangladeshis and 44 per cent of Black Africans. For Indians and Black Caribbeans the proportions are less – 28 and 27 per cent respectively thought homosexuality was wrong.

This edition of the EMBES (British Election Study Minority Ethnic Study) dates back to 2010, and one assumes that attitudes have shifted somewhat since then. It is also true, however, that when Integration Hub refers to Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, they are referring not just to immigrants, but also to the British-born descendants of immigrants. I bring this up because the U.S., and indeed many other western democracies, is in the midst of a roiling debate about accepting refugees and other migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries in the Muslim world. Of course, the attitudes of Britons of Bangladeshi and Pakistani descent don’t tell us anything about those of Arabs with respect to homosexuality, transgender rights, and other such questions, they do suggest that conservative attitudes on these questions can persist over time.

And we actually do have some suggestive evidence on attitudes towards gay rights in the Arab world. In 2013, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 39 countries to assess attitudes on a wide array of social questions, including a number of Middle Eastern countries. When asked if society should accept homosexuality, 60 percent of U.S. respondents said yes (a surprisingly low number, which I imagine has increased). In Lebanon, the share of the population that said yes was 18 percent, by far the highest share in the region. In the Palestinian Territories, the share of respondents who believed that society should accept homosexuality was 4 percent while in Jordan it was 3 percent. Pew did not survey Syrians or Iraqis at the time, but it seems plausible that attitudes in those countries were broadly similar. 

If one favors welcoming refugees out of humanitarian concern, I suppose one could be entirely indifferent as to whether or not the refugees in question have social attitudes that are sharply at variance with the host society. But it does seem as though liberals who see transgender and gay rights as a high priority issue ought to give these social attitudes at least some consideration. Moreover, it is not just attitudes towards transgender and gay rights that separate people from the Arab world from people living in the rich market democracies of Europe and North America — it is also attitudes towards women’s rights and much else. One could argue that the U.S. and other countries should not just tolerate but welcome vigorous opposition to, say, same-sex civil marriage, and that an influx of refugees with conservative attitudes would enrich our public conversation. I’m just not sure all liberals would see things that way if they gave the social attitudes of migrants some thought.  


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