Americans preferred Syrian refugees who are female, English-speaking, and Christian on the eve of Donald Trump’s election

Claire L. Adida, Adeline Lo, Melina R. Platas

PLoS ONE, Volume 14, Issue 10 (2019), Article Number e0222504


This paper examines Americans stated preferences for the types of refugees that should be admitted into the United States (US). The analysis focuses on Syrian refugees, since Syrians account for a large proportion of registered refugees globally, and include both Muslims and Christians, enabling the authors to examine whether Americans have an anti-Muslim bias.

The analysis draws on a nationally representative sample of 1,800 American citizens administered in October-November 2016, just prior to the 2016 US elections. Respondents were presented with three pairs of refugee profiles, with characteristics selected randomly across several dimensions including sex, religion, job before leaving Syria, English fluency, and age. Respondents were asked to rate each refugee on a scale from 1 (the US should absolutely not admit the refugee) to 7 (the US should definitely admit the refugee), and then to choose one refugee from each pair for admission into the US.

Main findings:

  • Respondents preferred Syrian refugees who were female, high-skilled, English speakers, and Christian.
  • The effects were strongest for language-fluency and religion. The most consistent and strongest determinant of preferences was religion; on average Muslim profiles rated lower than Christian profiles.
  • Respondents prefer female refugees over male refugees, but there is no evidence that respondents wish to exclude male Muslim refugees (who may be perceived by some respondents as a higher security threat), indicating that respondents were not motivated by security concerns in their preference for female refugees.
  • The anti-Muslim bias in Syrian refugee preferences was apparent across all subgroups of respondents (party, race and respondent religion), but was significantly lower for Democrats, non-whites, and non-Christians, and more pronounced for self-identified Republican, white, and Christian respondents.
  • The results did not differ by respondent’s educational attainment. All respondents preferred high-skilled refugees, regardless of their own skill level (proxied by educational attainment).
  • Respondents who were immigrants themselves, or were children of at least one immigrant parent, were more likely to give higher ratings compared to respondents whose immigration experience was more distant.

Consistent with previous research on American preferences for immigrant characteristics, these results suggest that American preferences for refugees are driven by sociotropic concerns (i.e., the economic burden of hosting refugees) and perceived cultural threat. However, the findings that Americans prefer female refugees, and that this preference is not driven by a rejection of Muslim male refugees, suggests that vulnerability concerns might matter in shaping American preferences for Syrian refugees, while security concerns may matter less.