One of the most common justifications for restricting immigration is claiming that too many of the fake immigrants are undermining liberal democratic institutions. In the worst case, their flawed culture, values, or political ideologies could “kill the goose that lays the golden eggs” that attracted immigrants in the first place and turn the receiving nation into a dead end of despotism. Such concerns should be taken seriously, and I dedicate a large portion of Chapter 6 of my book, Free Moving: Foot-Polling, Migration, and Political Freedom, to addressing them. Alex Nowrasteh and Benjamin Powell’s just released Wretched Refuse? The political economy of immigration and institutions does the same job in much greater depth and will likely be the most authoritative treatment of the subject.
But, as Nowrasteh pointed out in a recent blog post, the focus on immigrants as a threat to American institutions leads many to overlook the much greater danger posed by nativist nationalists – the people who are most hostile to immigration. Recent events highlight the severity of this threat:
Benjamin Powell and I wrote our book Wretched Refuse? The political economy of immigration and institutions, to address the argument that liberalized immigration will undermine the very American institutions that created economic prosperity and that primarily attracted immigrants here. Immigrants generally come from countries with political, cultural and economic institutions that are less conducive to economic growth than those in industrialized countries. The fear is that they would bring these anti-growth institutions with them. This is how immigrants could actually kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
As we carefully document, immigrants do not bring these facilities with them, and there is even evidence that immigrants improve facilities after they immigrate.
It is ironic that the immigration controlers, who are most concerned about immigrants degrading American institutions, are attacking those very institutions at all levels. After President Trump lost his re-election bid, the most nativist members of his party set out to reverse the election. A dozen Republican senators, mostly those who support cuts in legal immigration, plan to object to the certification of Biden’s victory over Trump. Over 100 representatives were also able to take part. President Trump has cut legal immigration more than any other president and recently threatened election officials in Georgia.
Immigration restrictors have also attacked the establishment of private property. The Trump administration has confiscated or attempted to confiscate 5,275 acres of privately owned land to build a border wall, most of it in Texas. Trump even diverted funds appropriated by Congress from the military to build the border wall.
Many in Trump’s orbit are also conspiracy theorists, or work with them at every opportunity. When you make up stories to cloud your opponents and believe in crazy conspiracy theories, trust in institutions is destroyed. This is exactly what some nativists claim that immigration to the US is happening.
Alex’s post was published on January 5th, the day before pro-Trump rioters attacked the Capitol. But the events of that terrible day show his point further. While we don’t have detailed demographics on them, it’s very likely that the rioters were mostly native whites – and (more importantly) strong supporters of Trump’s nationalist anti-immigration agenda.
Political scientists and survey researchers note that white ethnic nationalism and anti-immigration policies are among the strongest predictors of support for Trump and his agenda. Those who fear that immigrants pose a threat to American culture and institutions are most likely to tolerate and excuse Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.
Some of the horrific events of the past few weeks are the result of Trump’s distinctive personality and behavior, as well as the idiosyncratic characteristics of the American political system. But many are common features of ethno-nationalist anti-immigration movements around the world. During the past century it has been extremely common for nationalist movements hostile to immigrants and ethnic minorities to subvert democratic institutions and often to institute brutal dictatorships.
The Nazis are of course the most notorious example. However, the same is true of other fascist movements of the early 20th century in Italy, Spain, and elsewhere. More recently, nationalist movements have destroyed or seriously undermined democracy in Russia, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Brazil, the Philippines, India, and elsewhere. In each of these cases, authoritarian nationalists claimed to represent the true will of the people – defined as those of a majority of ethnicity, religion or culture.
Such claims naturally also lead to the idea that the opposition’s election victories must be illegal, since only the nationalists represent “real” Americans, Hungarians, Russians, Poles or Indians (again defined as members of the ethnic or cultural majority group) free of ” foreign “influence). Nationalist movements often promote conspiracy theories as well. If they alone represent the will of the people, political setbacks must be due to the machinations of shady, nefarious forces such as foreigners, “globalist” elites, international bankers, Jews, etc.
Trump’s conspiracy drive over the 2020 election, including allegations that the voting was falsified by illegal immigrants, foreign agents, and others, is a piece of similar conspiracy by Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban and other nationalist leaders in Europe and elsewhere.
The US is not as far away as Russia, Hungary and other nations that have succumbed to authoritarian nationalism, and our democratic institutions are (so far) stronger than theirs. But we would be stupid to ignore the parallels between these movements and Trumpism, and even more stupid to ignore the risks of making such movements grow. Trump and his allies themselves recognize the similarities and have embraced Orban, Putin, and other similar leaders and movements (including ethnonationalists in Western Europe) as ideological soulmates.
Contrary to the long history of nationalists undermining democracy, there are no modern cases where a democracy collapses or even degenerates significantly due to the political influence of immigrants with illiberal ideologies. In their book Nowrasteh and Powell document how liberal democracies like the US and Israel have coped well with large-scale immigration from repressive, undemocratic societies. This is because, on the one hand, most immigrants from such nations do not support the ideologies of the regimes they are fleeing from (this is a major reason why many have fled in the first place) and, on the other hand, because liberal societies have a strong ability To take in and assimilate people.
A more nuanced twist on the claim that immigrants pose a threat to democratic institutions is the idea that the problem is not the immigrants themselves, but the political backlash they create. Excessive immigration supposedly strengthens the political fate of authoritarian nationalists (including Trump!), Who in turn undermine democratic institutions when they come to power. So we need to limit immigration to protect ourselves from native nationalists.
A flaw in this argument is that survey data consistently shows that most people in the US and Europe consistently overestimate real immigration rates and those who are most against immigration overestimate most. Given this widespread ignorance, we cannot assume that, for example, a 10% decrease in immigration will lead to a parallel decrease in ethno-nationalist sentiment. In fact, most nationalist voters might not even notice the difference.
It’s also worth noting that immigrant hostility is often greatest among locals in parts of the United States and other countries with the fewest immigrants. It is indeed noteworthy that nationalist movements against immigrants came to power in Hungary and Poland, countries with very few immigrants (in the case of Hungary at no point in the past 30 years more than 4.6% of the population; than 3% in the case of Poland and much lower in the last 20 years). This also weakens claims that we can reduce support for illiberal nationalist movements by simply marginally limiting immigration.
Effectiveness aside, the idea that we need to restrict immigration to protect ourselves from native nationalists is morally perverse. This suggests that we severely limit the freedom and opportunities of innocent people to protect ourselves from the wrongdoing of others. The innocent people include both locals and prospective immigrants, as immigration restrictions weigh heavily on many of the former as well.
The reasons for preventing backlash on immigration restrictions are similar to nineteenth century claims that we must allow southern whites to segregate blacks in order to prevent the former from continuing to use violence and otherwise pose a continuing threat to the Union represent. Indeed, immigration restrictions bear many similarities to domestic racial segregation, as both severely limit freedom and opportunity due to arbitrary birth circumstances and are often based on a desire to maintain dominance of a particular racial or ethnic group.
If we have to restrict freedom to protect ourselves from illiberal nationalists, then the nationalists themselves should be the most suitable people. But I hasten to add that I don’t believe that the US and other Western nations should actually go that route while there is another plausible alternative. There should be a strong presumption against any restriction of civil liberties – even against those of people who themselves have little respect for liberal values.
We cannot completely rule out that there are cases where illiberal immigrants pose a threat to democratic institutions. In my book I describe possible extreme situations in which this could pose a real threat. In the vast majority of cases, however, the far greater threat to democracy is that of nativist nationalism.