Why an immigrant voted "Leave" in the Brexit vote?

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Last week I was chatting with an Uber driver, let’s call him Tim, on my way to Heathrow Airport. Tim was a very nice guy and we were having a pleasant conversation that included various topics. He explained how he had moved from Nigeria to the UK thirteen years ago and how he had become a big fan of his adopted country. He explained how he had become a UK citizen, how he had married a German woman, and how his life had improved in the past years. He told me how he works hard driving for Uber but liked the flexibility of the job and was happy.

Then the conversation changed to Brexit, as usual these days in the UK. Tim told me he voted “Leave” because he thinks there is too much immigration in the country. He said something alongside these lines:

There is too much immigration in the UK today and it is hard for us to find jobs. You know, if there is a job and 10 people apply, it’s very hard to get. But, if there are fewer immigrants and only 3 people can apply it’s better for people living here. The same happens when you want to find a flat, or buy a car. There is too much competition these days.

It blew my mind. It took me a good minute to digest what he said. He went from considering himself an immigrant (them) a little over a decade ago to considering himself British (us). He now rejects the openness that allowed him into the UK. He wants them out. He wants exclusive access to the benefits offered by the UK now that he is in, now that he is us.

Some questions came to my mind, which I’ll cover below.

Is his case the exception or the rule?

According to the data on the Brexit referendum, Tim’s case is the exception:

The Atlantic

In general, areas with high percentages of foreign-born residents voted “Remain”, meaning either they voted for an integrated Europe and immigration or they settle in areas that are more open to newcomers. In either scenario, more immigration tends to lead to higher tolerance towards it. So, Tim seems to be the minority, though it continued to puzzle me why cases like him still exist.

Why is Tim, an immigrant himself, against immigration and why did he vote “Leave”?

The answer to this question tells a lot about human psychology. One aspect is rational. A great article by Benjy Boxer shows how the middle class has not benefited from globalization, which means fewer opportunities available. So Tim, a utilitarian person who is maximizing his return, feels that lower immigration means lower competition and higher economic gains. Hence, as a rational individual, he votes “Leave”.

The other aspect is emotional. According to the Social Identity Theory, a psychology concept created by Henry Tajfel and summarized by Saul McLeod:

Social identity is a person’s sense of who they are based on their group membership(s).

Tajfel (1979) proposed that the groups (e.g. social class, family, football team etc.) that people belonged to were an important source of pride and self-esteem. Groups give us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world.

For pride and self-esteem, Tim now identifies with the British citizen group. By antagonizing the immigrants he moves closer to his British side. The us vs. them has changed, and that makes him feel good.

How does this affect society?

Tim’s anti-immigration sentiment, one of the main reasons behind Brexit, is bad for UK’s future. First, isolationism is not a good option in a hyperconnected world. No country can cut ties with the rest of the world and thrive, particularly economic hubs like the UK. London is one of the most prosperous and dynamic cities in the world due to it’s position as the business center of Europe, and will lose this position if the country chooses the path of isolation.

Second, immigration actually creates jobs, not takes them. Many studies show that immigrants help create diverse communities that can create jobs. Immigrants are amongst the most entrepreneurial citizens in many countries, like in the US and in Canada, and contribute to job creation. Immigrants from different backgrounds help create diverse and dynamic ecosystems that are fundamental to innovation.

The challenge is that Tim doesn’t see that. In worrying about himself and his family's current situation, he’s unable to see the bigger picture. It’s the tragedy of the commons.

How do we make Tim and others see that immigrants are not the enemy?

It's important to change the vantage point and stop focusing on nationality. Why should we care about where they came from? Imagine you are looking at earth from the space, not from your desk or home. Can you see differences? Doesn’t it look more homogeneous? Here's what Stephen Hawking has to say on the topic:

By changing the vantage point, differences become unnoticeable; we see unity, instead. We can then focus on root causes of the issue that generates Tim's antagonistic behaviour, which is the lack of economic progress of the middle class.

Keeping immigrants out weakens the economy in the long term. Additionally, we need to find something to replace what Warren Buffett calls the “ovarian lottery.” We need to give people opportunities to thrive wherever they want, regardless of where they came from.

Everyone deserves the chance that Tim had: to move around and seek better opportunities in life.

It’s a hard problem to solve. But let’s keep thinking.