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Keywords:

  • immigration;
  • public opinion;
  • immigration – Britain;
  • imagined immigration;
  • immigration attitudes

Public opinion research on immigration attitudes has largely overlooked the question of how survey respondents understand the term ‘immigrants’. This article investigates latent perceptions of immigrants, termed ‘imagined immigration’, among members of the British public. Using novel survey data, I examine who members of the British public have in mind when they think of immigrants. I find that public perceptions of immigration diverge significantly from the set of people identified as immigrants in government statistics and targeted in policy changes. In particular, public perceptions focus on asylum seekers and permanent arrivals, while mostly ignoring international students, a target of new restrictive immigration policies. I also show that variation in individuals' imagined immigration is strongly associated with individual preferences for reduced immigration, suggesting imagined immigration as a new determinant of anti-immigration policy preferences to consider in future research.