Will immigration strengthen the far right?

Democracy Examined

The United States is facing an unprecedented surge in immigration this year as countries to our south struggle with economic crises, widespread gang violence, and an unceasing pandemic. In June, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported 188,829 encounters with immigrants, the largest single month total in recent memory. Just this year the CBP has made more than 1 million arrests of undoumented immigrants, which is already the highest figure since 2006. Three months remain in the reporting period, so 2021 is bound for a historic total.

But the story’s not over yet. As Cuban protests progress through their second week and the Haitian crisis continues following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, the United States could receive tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees in the near future. Despite the very legitimate reasons for people to flee either country, the Biden administration has been quick to condemn any potential wave of migration. In the words of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, “Do not risk your life attempting to enter the United States illegally…You will not come to the United States.”

While the Biden administration’s official stance won’t earn any points from human rights advocates, political strategists certainly understand where they’re coming from. To put it simply, the effect of a mass immgration crisis on American politics could be nuclear. If any single thing can mobilize the far right, it’s immigration.

Are conservatives anti-immigration?

It would be a mistake to think that all conservatives are inherently against immigration. As RDI Advisory Board Member Bret Stephens points out, immigrants in America often uphold conservative ideals of model citizens better than native-born Americans. They’re twice as likely to start a business, they’re more likely to go to church, their children are more likely to have married parents, and they’re less likely to go to prison. The George W. Bush administration argued in defense of immigrants in a report entitled “Immigration’s Economic Impact.” The report cited economic data suggesting that immigrants working in the United States don’t just increase their own wages, they also increase the economic productivity of the rest of the country by an estimated $37 billion per year.

Still, unregulated immigration has the potential to aid the nativist wing of the Republican party, damaging Republican moderates’ electoral prospects in the process. Trump, of course, entered politics promoting the “birther” conspiracy and based his campaign on building a wall to keep immigrants out. More recently, following Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s appeal for backup, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem accepted a billionaire’s pledge to foot the bill for sending 50 national guardsmen to patrol the Mexican border. By March, 22% of Republicansconsidered immigration to be America’s greatest problem, up from just 7% a month earlier. In the words of a Republican strategist, the impending immigration crisis is “off the Richter scale in terms of importance for the Republican electorate.”

Are conservatives anti-immigration?

It’s impossible to predict, but Europe’s experience with the Syrian refugee crisis suggests that it could dramatically benefit far-right, nativist politicians. There is a direct correlation between how many immigrants arrived in a European country and how much support for far-right parties’ increased, according to one economic analysis. Another study noted that the far-right Freedom Party of Austria doubled its vote total from 2009 to 2015, with almost all of its gains coinciding with increases in refugee populations. Meanwhile the German military has struggled to control far-right, anti-immigrant factions in their ranks since the Syrian refugee crisis. One soldier made headlines for posing as a Syrian immigrant to infiltrate the German refugee system while the army had to disband an elite unit for its radical beliefs.

If Europe is any lesson, an immigration crisis could lead the Republican party even further from being the party of John McCain to that of Steve Bannon. Hillary Clinton, observing the German political situation in 2018, said “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame… if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”

For better or for worse, she was absolutely right.