Gallup survey of potential migrants, asking where they would prefer to move. The USA is top for 21%, followed by Canada and Germany at 6%.

Is the USA the favorite destination for migrants?

When a conversation in this country turns critical about the USA, someone may interject that foreigners want to move here more than anywhere else. I have heard that point made quite a few times over the years.

It is not exactly false. The Gallup World PollĀ purports to be a representative global sample. It asks whether you would like to move to another country and, if so, which one you would most prefer. The USA is the most popular destination, at 21%, followed by Canada and Germany, at 6%, and France and Australia, at 5%.

But there are other ways to slice the data. One is to adjust for population size. The USA is almost 13 times as populous as Australia, but only 4.2 times as popular as the first choice for potential migrants. If you imagine that migrants could allocate themselves to the countries of their choice, then Australia would draw many more immigrants per capita than the USA. In fact, migration involves many factors apart from the potential migrants’ preferences, but 30% of Australian residents are actually foreign-born, versus 13.6 of US residents.

Likewise, 3.5 times more potential migrants would go to the USA than to Canada, but the US is 8.7 times more populous than Canada. And in reality, 23 percent of Canadians are foreign-born, versus 13.6 percent of US residents.

Another way to analyze the data is to combine countries. Gallup does not provide statistics on the popularity of smaller European countries, such as Belgium, whose actual immigrant population is 17.2% (i.e., higher than that of the USA). But if you combine the EU countries that Gallup lists, they total 20%, just shy of the USA’s 21%. I imagine that adding the other EU countries would make Europe more popular than the United States in aggregate. To be sure, some European migration is among the EU countries, but why shouldn’t that count?

Another interesting tidbit is that 10% of US and Canadian residents (combined) would prefer to migrate away from their countries. That is actually a higher rate than in Asia.

People who consider migrating tend to want to move to places where there is capital, demand for labor, and no war. Some countries that meet these standards rank unusually low as the preferred destinations for migrants, Japan being the most prominent example. But most of America’s counterparts would attract at least as many immigrants on a per-capita basis as we do, and many actually have more foreign-born residents.

Meanwhile, the countries that draw the most migrants are mostly not democratic, social-democratic, or liberal. Not counting micro-states, six of the eight sovereign nations that have the highest proportions of migrants are monarchies in the Persian Gulf (the other two being Luxembourg and Singapore). They are not necessarily preferred destinations–they register on the global poll but fall behind NATO members and Australia–but they do meet the criteria of capital and domestic peace, and they let people in.

See also: American exceptionalism; American exceptionalism, revisited; and anxieties about American exceptionalism

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.