Open Journal of Political Science
2013. Vol.3, No.4, 143-145
Published Online October 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 143
Voter Beliefs, Electoral Concerns and Undocumented Migration
Ruxanda Berlinschi1,2, Mara Pasquamaria Squicciarini2,3
1Department of Economics, HUBrussel (HUB), Brussels, Belgium
2LICOS, Centre for Institutions and Economic Performance, Department of Economics,
University of Le u ven, Leuven, Belgium
3FWO—Research Foundation Flanders, Brussels, Belgium
Email: ruxanda. be rl i ns ch,
Received July 25th, 2013; revised August 29th, 2013; accepted September 13th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Ruxanda Berlinschi, Mara Pasquam aria Squicciarini. This is an open access articl e d i st ributed
under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction
in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
If voters underestimate the benefits that immigrants bring to their country, policy makers need to cam-
paign for suboptimal migration levels in order to win elections. Once in power, they face a trade-off be-
tween keeping electoral promises by restricting immigration and stimulating the economy by favoring
immigration. One solution to this trade-off may be maintaining high barriers to legal migration, while
keeping a blind eye on undocumented migration.
Keywords: Immigration; Biased Beliefs; Electoral Concerns
As immigration to Western countries has been increasing in
the past decades, its effects on host countries have been ob-
served, analyzed and discussed at various levels, from academic
journals, to policy reports, press stories and everyday conversa-
tions. In these ongoing debates, a gap seems to emerge between
the conclusions of scientific studies regarding the effects of
immigration and public perceptions of these same effects.
Scientific studies give a broadly positive picture of the over-
all impact of immigration on the economy and society. Immi-
grants are good for the economy because they stimulate innova-
tion (Hunt & Gauthier-Loiselle, 2008), productivity (Chellaraj
et al., 2008), and growth (Ortega & Peri, 2009). Increasing
South-North migration could lead to huge income gains, a sig-
nificant part of which would be reaped by host countries (An-
derson & Winters, 2008; Clemens, 2011). Immigrants have a
small positive impact on public finances (Auerbach & Oreo-
poulos, 1999; Lee & Miller, 2000), i.e. on average, their tax
contributions exceed the benefits they receive. While immigra-
tion does sometimes depress wages of non-qualified workers in
destination countries, these effects are small and negligible
compared to the overall gains from labor mobility (Friedberg &
Hunt, 1995; Card, 2001; Clemens, 2011). Migration does lead
to greater religious and cultural heterogeneity in the host coun-
try, and while this undermines trust and social solidarity in the
short run (Putnam, 2007), it brings social benefits in the long
Public opinion about immigration is generally less positive,
as witnessed by the rise of anti-immigration parties in many
Western countries and the consistent presence of immigration
among the main public policy concerns in opinion polls1. Peo-
ple’s negative attitudes towards migration have two main di-
mensions: economic and cultural (Mayda, 2006; Scheve &
Slaughter, 2001; O’Rourke & Sinott, 2006). Many natives be-
lieve that migrants are stealing their jobs, putting downwards
pressure on their wages and abusing the social system. Few
natives are aware of immigrants’ positive impact on innovation,
trade, entrepreneurship and job creation. Many natives perceive
immigrants as a threat to their culture, values and security and
are not aware of the long term social benefits of inter-ethnic
This divergence between scientific studies and public opin-
ion could be explained by the fact that the benefits of migration
are widespread and diffuse, while its costs, such as an incident
with a member of a foreign community, are local and concen-
trated, and therefore more visible. Moreover, specific negative
stories are more likely to catch media and public attention than
diffuse medium term benefits (McCluskey & Swinnen, 2004;
Swinnen & Heinz, 2013).
Policy makers are informed about both academic and public
opinion on a certain issue. In order to win elections, they need
to promise policies that are appealing to the electorate, i.e. re-
stricted immigration. In order to stimulate the economy, they
need to implement policies that would bring economic and
social benefits, i.e. more open immigration. Elected politicians
therefore face the trade-off between being perceived as prom-
ise-keeping and being perceived as having stimulated economic
growth, both of which affect the probability to be re-elected.
One possible solution to this trade-off is to keep restrictions to
legal migration and tolerate a certain level of undocumented
migration. This solution may work if voters believe that legal
migration flows are chosen by the authorities to a larger extent
than undocumented migration flows. We formalize this argu-
ment with a simple political-economy model.
This note contributes to a recent strand of the political econ-
omy of migration literature, which hypothesizes that high
numbers of undocumented migrants are deliberately tolerated
by some governments, for economic, political and electoral
1Ex: Eurobarometer (2006, 2013).
reasons (Hillman & Weiss, 1999; Fasani, 2009; Facchini &
Testa, 2010; Berlinschi & Squicciarini, 2011). By focusing on
politicians’ electoral concerns as an explanation for illegal im-
migration, this paper is closest in line with Facchini and Testa
(2010). While in their paper undocumented immigration is
driven by voters’ imperfect information about the politician’s
type, in our paper it is driven by voters’ imperfect information
about the impact of immigration.
Theoretical Framework
Consider an economy populated by N natives, indexed by i,
who elect a politician for implementing a certain migration
policy. Migration policy is defined as a couple (M, I) where M
is the number of legal and I the number of illegal migrants
allowed to participate in the economy. Assume that there exists
an optimal total migration level for each voter i, and
that for a given total number of migrants, natives’ utility is
decreasing with the share of illegal migrants2. We model these
assumptions by assigning the following reduced-form utility
function t o native i:
  (1)
where c is a constant and 0
is the magnitude of the wel-
fare loss associated with migrants’ illegal status. This utility
function is maximized at and *
Let be the median voter, whose utility function:
 2
, (2)
is maximized at and 0I*
Assume that voters underestimate the migration level which
maximizes their utility. This can be modeled by assuming that
the anticipated utility of native i, i.e. before migration policy is
implemented, is given by:
  (3)
with *A
M for all i.
Denote by C
median voter’s anticipated optimal migra-
tion level with *C
Assume that incumbent politicians are judged both on their
achievements (voters’ welfare at the end of their mandate) and
on their credibility (the extent to which they have kept their
electoral promises).
Consider the following three-stage game,
1, 2, 3t. In
stage 1, elections take place. In this stage, all politicians are
challengers competing on migration policies. Under majority
voting, the policy winning the political contest will be the one
closest to median voter’s preferences, i.e. (MC, 0). In stage 2,
the elected politician implements a certain migration policy (M,
I) which may differ from the electoral promise (MC, 0). At the
end of this stage, voters observe their welfare, as well as the
gaps between the electoral promise and the implemented poli-
cies, i.e. C
M and I. In stage 3, a second election takes
place. In this election the incumbent politician competes with a
challenger. The probability for the incumbent to be re-elected
depends positively on voters’ welfare and negatively on the gap
between electoral promises and implemented policies.
Should deviations in legal and undocumented migration in-
duce the same credibility loss for the policy maker? We argue
that deviations in illegal migration should induce a smaller loss
in credibility. While legal migrants have a visa or a residence
permit provided by the authorities, undocumented migrants are
by definition not allowed to reside in the country. Therefore
legal migration flows should be perceived as being a result of
authorities’ intention, to a larger extent than undocumented
migration flows.
We can model these ideas by assuming that the probability
for the incumbent to be re-elected is an increasing function of E,
where E given by:
*2 C
 
 
The first three terms of E represent median voter’s welfare at
the end of period 2, as a function of implemented migration
policies. The last term represents deviations from electoral
promises. The term 0
represents the weight of the credi-
bility loss on the probability of being re-elected. The term
 represents the relatively lower cost of deviations in
undocumented migration levels.
Let us now derive the two endogenous variables of the model,
i.e. migration policies implemented in period 2. The policy
maker will implement the policies that maximize re-election
probability, i.e. he will maximize E with respect to M and I.
This simple optimization problem leads to the following result.
Result: The migration policy
I implemented by the
incumbent politician is given by:
11 11
  
 
 
 
 (6)
In order to maximize re-election probability, the politician
should implement a legal migration level O
equal to a con-
vex combination between the optimal and campaigned migra-
tion levels *
and C
, and a strictly positive illegal migra-
tion level . The deviations between promised and imple-
mented migration levels arise from voters’ biased beliefs about
the impact of migration. From (5) and (6), it is easy to check
that if the median voter has correct beliefs about the welfare
maximizing policy, then the politician does not deviate from
electoral promises and chooses zero undocumented migration,
i.e. if
M, then *OC
MM and 0
. From
(6), we can also see that if the credibility loss suffered by the
politician is the same for deviations in legal and undocumented
migration levels, no illegal migration will be induced, i.e. if
, then 0
. The level of illegal migration is de-
creasing in the welfare cost associated with illegality μ and in
the credibility parameter
Some level of undocumented immigration may thus be inten-
tionally tolerated by policy makers when the following condi-
tions are satisfied: voters underestimate the optimal number of
immigrants for their country, politicians are electorally com-
pensated for stimulating the economy and for keeping electoral
promises, and undocumented migration is perceived to be less
controllable than regular migration.
2This assumption is supported by many public opinion surveys, such as
EuroBarometer. Th is may
e due to illegal migrants being employed in
the black economy, paying fewer taxes and social security contributions
being on average less skilled and considered more likely to engage in
criminal activities.
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s .
Copyright © 2013 SciRe s . 145
Many Western voters seem to underestimate the benefits that
immigrants bring to their country. Policy makers concerned
with winning elections therefore do not campaign for reducing
immigration barriers, even though such policies could bring
huge economic benefits according to scientific studies. Once in
power, policy makers face the trade-off between stimulating the
economy by increasing immigration, and being perceived as
keeping electoral promises by restricting immigration. The
solution to this trade-off may be maintaining strong barriers to
legal migration, while turning a blind eye on undocumented
migration. Even though undocumented immigrants may bring
fewer economic benefits, as they only work in some specific
sectors and pay less taxes, such a strategy may allow policy
makers to help some economic sectors and in the same time
avoid being perceived as too immigration-friendly, since by
definition, undocumented migrants are not allowed to reside in
the country. This argument may partly explain why some west-
ern governments have been silently allowing hundreds of thou-
sands of undocumented migrants to participate in their econo-
mies, while keeping strong restrictions on legal migration
We thank A. Ariu, G. De Luca, and J. Fidrmuc for their
comments and suggestions. M.P.S. gratefully acknowledges
financial support from FWO-Flanders.
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