Democracy—and Immigration—in America

by Luke Henkel


Inscribed in the base of the Statue of Liberty, one of the most iconic symbols of American democracy, is Emma Lazarus’ iconic poem “The New Colossus.” Lady Liberty, the “Mother of Exiles,” cries out to the world: “give me your tired, your poor / your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” The association between the statue and the poem exemplifies a broad narrative in American culture that links American democracy to a welcoming posture towards immigrants.

Beginning with John F. Kennedy, American politicians have frequently reminded the country of its status as a “nation of immigrants.” From George W. Bush to Barack Obama, presidents have employed that iconic phrase to note the central role of immigrants in the unique political innovation that is American democracy, from the founding to the present day. They are right: immigrants are and always have been essential to the flourishing of American democracy, despite the political opposition their arrival has often produced. Furthermore, immigration can assist the United States in promoting democracy around the world, a responsibility that has fallen to this country because of its inescapable status as a beacon of democracy.

It must be acknowledged that not every American agrees democracy and immigration share such a positive association. The United States has a long history of exclusionary immigration policies. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1917, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 all set restrictive limits on immigration (especially immigration from purportedly undesirable countries outside northern and western Europe) and all passed both the House and Senate with large majorities. Through such legislation, the American people and their representatives asserted their democratic will to limit membership in the polity. The latter two laws did so not only through democratic means, but also for supposedly democratic ends. The Red Scare prompted lawmakers to limit the migration of Eastern Europeans who they feared might not be capable of handling the rigors of democratic citizenship or, worse, might be anarchists or communists opposed to democracy.

These arguments didn’t end a century ago; they continue up to the present day. Fearing a dilution of their political power, right-wing firebrands like Tucker Carlson have advanced the age-old argument that immigrants cannot be good democratic citizens and are instead vulnerable to being manipulated as political pawns. More moderate voices have also sounded the alarm, arguing that high levels of immigration invite an anti-democratic backlash from populist politicians.

So does immigration actually harm democracy? Researchers have reached a general verdict, and it is a resounding no; in fact, the opposite is true. First of all, migration tends to create population shifts away from autocracies and towards democracies. The ten countries with the highest emigration numbers in 2019 scored an average of 4.52 on the ten-point EIU Democracy Index, 2.2 points lower than the average score of the ten countries with the most immigration. The average high emigration country was a hybrid regime ranking between Gambia and Benin, while the average high immigration country was a flawed democracy ranking between Bulgaria and Suriname. This means that international migration has a tendency to increase the number of people who experience the advantages of—and may, with citizenship, eventually participate in—democracy. 

But the benefits of migration don’t only accrue to the migrants themselves. Indeed, research indicates that they can have demonstrable benefits on migrants’ home countries, even leading to democratization. This occurs through what are known as “social remittances,” a play on the term typically used to describe money migrants send their families back home. When immigrants experience the blessings of democracy—the opportunity to participate in civil society, the exhilaration of personal freedom, the right to petition and protest against the government—they tell their families back home. Sometimes, having heard about what democracy is like, their family members are inspired to start advocating for democracy. And if these social remittances are sent alongside monetary ones, migrants’ families will be even more empowered to engage in activism by the autonomy granted through greater financial freedom.

Real-world data provides strong support for these theories. In a survey of 650 Mexican respondents, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin found that knowing family or friends who had migrated abroad makes people more than twice as likely to engage in politics and 3.5 times more likely to join an organized protest. A more extensive survey of 2,400 Mexicans from a team at the University of California Los Angeles and the University of Pennsylvania bolstered these findings. It also indicated that receiving money in remittances strengthens the effect of political participation among relatives of migrants. Similar results have been found in Mali, Cape Verde, and Moldova.

The case of Don Ángel Calderón illustrates, on a small scale, what migrants abroad can do for their communities back home. Seeking work in the 1980s, Don Ángel emigrated to the United States from El Timbinal, a tiny village of 538 residents in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. After founding a shelter in the United States to assist his fellow migrant workers, he turned his eyes back to his home. From California, Don Ángel began working on small-scale development projects such as hiring a music teacher for the town’s children and repairing the central plaza. In the 1990s he set his sights on a clothing factory that would allow his friends and family to begin earning money themselves, rather than having to rely on remittances sent from the U.S. Through a lengthy process of engagement with the town’s citizens and the national and state governments, he was able to build the factory; it remained open as of 2014. The project stands out as a highlight of democratic popular engagement with the local government—the women who run it today have asserted themselves as leaders in the community and advocates on behalf of their neighbors to the government. International migration allows for stories like Don Ángel Calderón’s, of people who use the opportunities available in a different country to create progress at home.

As a relatively rich, democratic country, the United States is a coveted destination for immigrants. Living in the U.S. helps show newcomers why representative government is so vital. It gives them the inspiration and the resources to promote it in their home countries. But is there something that makes the U.S. unique, setting it apart from its developed and democratic peers in its duty to welcome migrants? 

Yes: the U.S. is unique because it is itself a nation of immigrants. The American people have no shared blood and a short-standing attachment to the country’s soil, relative to most of our peers. Almost all of us come from other places, so we are united mainly by our shared faith in American values. Democracy, being one of those values, must therefore take greater precedence in the United States than in other democracies. It is for that reason that promotion of democracy is such an important responsibility of the United States in all its internationally-minded actions. We must take in immigrants both because immigration is a vital component of our national character and because it can help spread democracy around the world.

By accepting immigrants, the United States can reap both moral and material benefits. First, effective integration of migrants into the United States and the successful export of democracy to the world can provide a much-needed boost to American popular confidence and help bolster Americans’ faith in our constitutional system of government. Second, taking in migrants can boost American soft power, cultivating friends in “huddled masses” the world over who can hope to fulfill their dreams by traveling to America. Third, the democratization that migration to the United States hopefully catalyzes can help the U.S. win strategic allies in newly-created democracies.

While the challenges immigration poses to domestic politics are real, we must remember it ultimately has a symbiotic rather than an adversarial relationship with democracy. Immigration can challenge a democracy, but the United States is not just any democracy. It is a unique country, a great political experiment, an exceptional nation whose character and unifying mythology rest on universal values. In order to survive, America must protect these values. It must always be, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”


Title Image Credit: Ellis Island Foundation

Aaro Berhane

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