Political Trust of Immigrants

Anecdotical evidence tells me that immigrants from less developed countries exhibit lower levels of trust in the political institutions of their host countries than the native-born population. Immigrants vote less and seem to have less trust in the government and local politicians. Especially in the Arab world, conspiracy theories are widespread and they find their way into the public discourse of the host countries. I regard it as an essential challenge for a society, after the successful economic integration, to also integrate its immigrants politically. Low levels of trust in political institutions are particularly bad for social coherence. So I’m generally interested in this topic.

However, anecdotes are usually a bad advisor because there is an anecdote to support almost every idea. Therefore I was curious what research can tell us about the phenomenon. First of all, should immigrants really have lower trust in their host country institutions, then this would be rather paradoxical. Arguably, the political system of their host countries should be much better than in their country of origin. After all, that’s often the reason to emigrate in the first place. On the other hand, immigrants might be more sensitized to recognize corruption in their host countries or simply project the bad political habits of their home country leaders onto Western politicians. Another reason for low trust levels could be that immigrants experience discrimination and unfair treatment by the host country’s government and therefore lose trust in the system.

The empirical evidence I found on the topic comes to a surprising conclusion. A study of political trust among Scandinavian immigrants (Strömblad and Adman, 2010) showed that, contrary to my intuition, levels of trust are even higher for immigrants than for native-born citizens. And this trust is highest for immigrants that come from high-corruption countries. So immigrants indeed compare the quality of institutions across destinations and generally come to a positive assessment. However, the initially high levels of trust vanish over time. The researchers attribute this effect to an initially overly positive picture that becomes more realistic when immigrants become more established. The researchers believe that such a more realistic assessment might actually not be too bad for the working of a democracy because it prevents a “blind believe in the ruling elites”.

Another study I found is concerned with the trust of immigrants in criminal justice institutions in Europe (Röder and Mühlau, 2012; unfortunately behind a pay wall). The authors also acknowledge a “dual frame” in which first-generation immigrants compare the legal system of their home and host countries and therefore come to more favorable conclusions than natives. At the same time, immigrants state that they experience discrimination in their new homes which has a negative effect on their trust levels. For first-generation immigrants this negative effect is not yet strong enough to counteract the positive first assessment. But the study also shows that second-generation immigrants unfortunately exhibit lower levels of trust in the legal system. The authors conjecture that the adjusted “reference frame”, i.e., the fact that overly optimistic first impressions become more realistic over time, together with the negative effect of discrimination is a likely driver for this lower trust of immigrants’ children compared to their native peers.

To conclude, my impression was largely wrong. At least according to my incomplete review of the literature. Or, my anecdotical evidence rather comes from second or even third-generation immigrants. Anyways, good that I’ve checked…


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