Discriminatory Immigration Bans Elicit Anti-Americanism in Targeted Communities: Evidence from Nigerian Expatriates

Aaron Erlich, Thomas Soehl, and Annie Y. Chen

Restrictions on immigration are nearly universal in two ways. First, they are universal because every country restricts immigration. Second, most countries try to appear as universal as possible — in the sense of not openly discriminating against migrants from some countries, religions, or ethnic groups while preferring others. Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban” and other bans against immigrants from certain countries openly violate this principle. In our paper, we show that such discrimination leads to a backlash among those targeted — not only against political elites but against the rank-and-file citizens of the country that enacts the ban.  We argue that immigration bans, like the one Donald Trump enacted, create a “politics of national humiliation” — those targeted feel their national identity is denigrated and, in response, turn against members of the group that impugned their national identity.

Using a targeted advertising campaign on Facebook, we surveyed Nigerian expatriates in Ghana as part of a global Nigerian diaspora study. We take advantage of the fact that we had our study in the field both before and after Trump enacted his unexpected immigration ban (Unexpected Event during Survey (UEDS) design). We measure attitudes towards Americans (our outcome variable) using a conjoint experiment that asks respondents’ opinions of two hypothetical neighbors and which one they would prefer. Respondents were provided four attributes of these hypothetical neighbors: religion, occupation, family size and, critically for our study, ethnicity/national group.  This ethnicity/national group attribute included the group “American.” 

After seeing each set of paired profiles, respondents answered two questions. The first was a forced-choice question: “If you had to choose between these two neighbors, which one would you prefer?”  The second was a rating question, where respondents rated both profiles: “How much would you like to have this person as a neighbor?” We estimate the change in attitudes towards Americans in our conjoint experiment as the difference between the pre- and post-ban sample for both our forced-choice and rating question.


As shown in Figure 1, in line with our theory, we find a 13 percentage-point drop in affinity toward American neighbors (on the forced-choice question). This drop is larger than the difference between respondents’ preferences for a neighbor who is an “Engineer” as opposed to a “Street vendor” (8.5 points) from the occupation attribute. We also show that none of the other ethnic/national groups we display witness any change in public opinion. That we do not observe negative reactions in any other group is worth highlighting; it provides evidence that we observe a backlash against Americans specifically — rather than a more generalized rallying around national identity and an increase in distrust of members of all out-groups.

Our study contributes to a far-reaching line of research documenting the type of policies that shift foreign opinion about the United States and generate anti-American attitudes. While we cannot say how long the effects last, we highlight the critical role that widely publicized discriminatory immigration policies can have on the views of countries like the United States.

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