Why does society no longer blame immigrants for spreading disease? It used to. The Jews were blamed for the Black Death, and Irish immigrant workers were blamed for Cholera in the 1830s. (See this nice science museum website.) Syphilis has been blamed on all manner of foreigners: the French blamed the Italians and the Italians blamed the French! The obvious answer is that society now knows better as a result of medical science.
Nowadays immigrants are instead blamed for unemployment, lower wages and increasing crime. They are blamed for reducing natives access to the NHS. Yet just as in the case of immigrants and disease, most experts know that popular concerns are wide of the mark. Nor are some of the sources of popular misperception difficult to understand. For example immigrants use the NHS, but they also pay taxes that allow us to fund more NHS resources, but government funding may be slow in responding to changes in local demand. In current circumstances the UK government is holding back those resources nationally, but says it is ‘protecting’ the NHS and the media dutifully repeats that they are.
Some politicians and large sections of the print media deliberately fuel popular misconceptions because they can use it to their advantage. Others feel they have to go with those misperceptions because otherwise they will lose votes. Much of the broadcast media see it as their duty to ‘reflect popular concern’ but feel less compelled to reflect expert opinion. But if you think this is inevitable and natural, imagine what would happen if a senior politician started blaming immigrants for bringing in diseases. Well you don’t have to imagine.
Watching certain Labour politicians trying to get on to the anti-immigration bandwagon is painful to see. Some are the same politicians who also argued that Labour had to accept austerity after the 2015 General Election. Now immigration is much more complex than austerity, as I discuss here, but that is all the more reason to respect the evidence. (Those who still wonder why Jeremy Corbyn is so popular among party members should note he is sticking with his principles on both austerity and immigration.) But I think it is wrong to just blame politicians. Responsibility must also rest with most of the media, who (as we saw in the Brexit campaign) treat economic evidence very differently from medical evidence.