The Politics of Migration
America’s immigration system is “on the ballot” this November. Those were the words of Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who, along with other Republicans, has been using immigration as a weapon against Democrats this election season. In the latest episode in Talking Policy’s series on the Future of Democracy, host Lindsay Morgan talks with Maggie Peters, a political scientist at UCLA, about what shapes what voters think about immigration; the effects immigrants have on the communities where they settle; and how are the politics of migration changing in the U.S. and overseas. This interview was recorded on October 20, 2022. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
We often hear in the news about “surges” of migrants at the U.S.-Mexican border, and politicians often frame the issue as if the U.S. faces an onslaught of migrants. How many immigrants actually arrive at the U.S. border in any given year?
This is a complicated question. Millions and millions of foreigners come to our borders basically every day and every year, but most come just to visit and be tourists in the United States. In terms of people who come with prior authorization, there are people who are legal, permanent residents—these are your green card holders. Last year, about 230,000 new legal permanent residents entered. There are also temporary workers who we often lump in as immigrants but are actually counted by the U.S. government as non-immigrants because they don’t have the ability to become citizens. There were about 1 million if we count temporary workers and add students and some other groups. Altogether, almost 2 million people come each year for work or study.
We also have people who are refugees, who are resettled. They go through a very long resettlement process that involves the U.N. [United Nations], our State Department, and various organizations within the Department of Homeland Security. We only had about 11,000 refugees come last year, which is down quite a bit and way misses Biden’s target number—he was going to try and resettle 120,000.
And then we have people who come to the border who don’t have pre-authorization and aren’t from a country where you’re allowed to just come in.… What’s complicated is that when the Border Patrol catches somebody at the border or turns somebody away who has presented themselves, who doesn’t have prior authorization to come to the United States, they don’t keep track of that person’s name and who they are. So we have huge numbers of apprehensions at the border, but these are mostly single men who are repeatedly trying to cross and then get sent back. I’ve heard numbers like 200,000 kicked around, but that includes people who are coming over and over again. We don’t actually know the real number of people who come to our border. We do know that last year, of the people who came to the border, only 17,000 were allowed in as asylum seekers.
The idea of the U.S. as an immigrant nation is a huge part of our identity. And immigrants have been found to be good for the U.S. economy, and for the economies of the countries where they come from, for all kinds of reasons. But negative views towards migrants are pervasive, especially towards low-wage migrants, which are sometimes called low-skilled migrants. Why do Americans oppose immigration?
First, this is nothing new. There have always been large swaths of Americans who have opposed immigration. And the talking points are always the same: they take jobs, they’re fiscal drains, they’re going to use the welfare system, they bring crime.
There are two dynamics going on that overlap a lot. One is concerns about “others.” Who is in the “in-group” in the United States has shifted over time. In the early 1800s, it was just people of British descent. Then it shifted to Anglo-Saxons (and that’s where you get White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants—the WASPs). Then the in-group then shifted over time to include all people of European heritage.
There’s always been a core group of people who we would call white who are in the in-group, and there’s always been concerns about the out-groups, whether it was concerns about Chinese individuals coming to California, or concerns about people of African heritage. And there’s always a little bit of racism, ethnocentrism, that pushes those views.
The other aspect, too, that often aligns with this is an anti-poor view.
Within American political thought and Anglo political thought and sociology, there is a view of the undeserving poor and the deserving poor. Migrants are [often considered] undeserving if they’re poor because they came here. And, of course, racism and anti-poor bias overlap a lot because out-groups, typically because of discrimination, end up being poor.
So it’s a combination of migration as an economic threat and as a cultural threat, like a normative, hard-to-define threat, as if migrants somehow diminish us, but only certain kinds of migrants. Right?
Right. Today you see a lot of support for high-wage migrants, even though many high-wage migrants are traditionally from India. Indian people and people from South Asia and East Asia are culturally pretty different from white Americans, but because they’re coming in highly educated and get high-wage jobs, they get “model minority” status and overcome some of the bias. Unlike Hispanics, who are stereotyped often as being low-skilled.
In a piece that you wrote in The New Republic in 2017, you talk about the GOP embrace of anti-immigration policies, and show, concerningly, that whereas U.S. business interests used to be more pro-immigrant, today most businesses “simply don’t care about immigration the way they used to.” This means that the Republican Party is increasingly free to crack down on immigration without fear of alienating the business community.
Why is the business community less pro-immigrant now? And how do Democrats and Republicans approach this issue differently?
If you think back to a hundred years ago or to the turn of the 18th or 19th or 20th centuries, and you think about all the factories. Who were the factories staffed by? They were staffed by immigrants for the most part. New immigrants would join the textile industry or the automobile industry and so forth. Those industries don’t exist in the same way that they used to. Like, we don’t really have a textile industry in the U.S. any longer. And what we do have relies a lot on machinery. Same thing with most manufacturing. Manufacturing jobs, even though they’ve recovered and even bounced back from the pandemic, they’re still way lower than they were in the 1970s. Manufacturing jobs have been lost to overseas competition and to automation and technological improvements, which means we can make way more today than we could in the past with way fewer workers.
So we just don’t need as many workers. And the workers we do need, need to be relatively skilled to work with complicated machinery.
As we’ve lost manufacturing, we haven’t seen the service sector and other sectors step up in the same way to push for more immigration in the way that manufacturing once did.
So does this mean that voices in favor of immigration reform or more liberal immigration policies have lost an important constituency then?
Yes. They don’t have an important constituency, and one that brought a lot of money to the table. Rich businesspeople, who fund a lot of campaigns, aren’t pushing for immigration because they don’t see it as a key area for their business. They see issues like tax policy and regulations as much more important.
Why haven’t the service, construction, or agriculture sectors had a stronger voice in favor of immigration reform?
Agriculture is interesting, and agriculture is split because a lot of “big ag” doesn’t actually use a whole lot of labor. With things like soybeans, wheat, and corn—it’s basically one machine and one person driving a giant machine. Agricultural organizations, the farmers’ associations in California, do lobby for immigration, but they don’t have a whole lot of support from other places in the country. If you think about the way politics works in the U.S., it’s very geographically based because of the Senate. So you have to be able to get enough support across geographies and they don’t have enough support.
In terms of the service sector and construction sector, you have a lot of smaller businesses that have problems organizing. A lot of restaurants, for example, use immigrant labor, but a lot of them are small. It wasn’t until the pandemic when prominent chefs like Tom Colicchio and others started creating independent restaurant lobbying groups, that independent restaurants had real representation in Washington. Big chain restaurants had representation, but not the smaller places that were more likely to hire immigrant workers. You just don’t have the same organization that you had in manufacturing.
I read an article in The Economist about immigration that noted that net immigration—so new arrivals and departures—has trended downward in the U.S. since 2017. And we’re also seeing labor shortages in several industries. The article raised the question of why there isn’t more conversation about migration being a key factor in worker shortages. Why isn’t it ringing more bells?
Yeah, it is true. We hear about labor shortages every day, and what’s crazy is that we do have a group of immigrants who would love to come and work in our country, but we’re not letting them in. And part of the reason, or the main reason, is politics.
Democrats have decided that immigration reform and doing anything that’s seen as more pro-immigration is a losing issue for them. On the Republican side, immigration is one of their top issues and they’re very anti-immigration. And swing voters tend to be more anti-immigration.
So if you’re a Democrat, you’re like: my base likes this issue, but I’m going to lose swing voters and I might fire up Republicans. So I’m just not going to touch it. Unless there is an outside voice that’s really powerful—like businesses—who get their act together on this issue, then you might see some shifts in the conversation. But right now, they don’t seem to care enough or be organized enough on this issue to get reform moving.
How big of an issue is immigration in the U.S. midterm elections, and what do politicians assume voters think about this issue?
Typically, politicians think voters are more conservative on the issue than they probably are because they tend to hear from people who oppose immigration. The small numbers of people they hear from who favor immigration typically are from some sort of ethnic association. So it might be a Latino group. It could be a Ukrainian group. It could be an Afghan group or a Venezuelan group—someone looking for support for their specific group and not for immigration in general.
But they hear from anti-immigrant people most. Even though they see polls showing that people maybe are supportive of immigration, they typically assume that their constituents are opposed to immigration. And if you’re a moderate, or a Democrat running in a purple district, and you’re worried about
Fox News coming after you on the issue, you don’t want to touch it. Democrats don’t want immigration to be in the news cycle right now. They want to focus on abortion rights because that will bring out more Democrats. They want the election to be a referendum on Trump again.
Republicans do want to focus on immigration, but they’re also thinking that inflation’s an even better topic for them to talk about because it affects people’s daily lives.
You wrote a really interesting paper that looks at the impact of inequality on opposition to immigration—i.e., does greater inequality lead to more or louder calls for immigration restrictions? And you found that the answer depends a lot on what country you’re looking at. How do the politics of migration differ between countries?
The U.S. and other high-income democracies look really similar in terms of increased restrictions on immigration and less business support for immigration. Even in places like Sweden, which used to be one of the most liberal countries on immigration, especially on refugees, their new policy is making Sweden very restrictive for refugees. It’s the same sort of anti-immigrant politics that you see in the U.S.
It’s different in middle-income countries, which are facing large flows of people from forced migration crises. Turkey, for example, has large flows of Syrian refugees, and Colombia and Brazil are seeing large numbers of Venezuelans fleeing the economic crisis in Venezuela. Countries in Eastern Europe now have large numbers of Ukrainians.
In these places, the politics is a little different because middle-income countries are where manufacturing has gone. And so business typically likes these large flows because they are able to get more employees that way. But heightened inequality pushes anti-immigration sentiment because the immigrants compete [with locals] for jobs in those economies. I’ll give you an example: Colombia and Venezuela. Colombians and Venezuelans both speak Spanish, right? They’re both majority Catholic countries. The dominant racial ethnic group in those countries are people who are mestizo. They are culturally similar. When Venezuelans come to Colombia, they can pretty easily compete for the same kind of jobs and they have similar levels of education. If I’m an employer, and a lot of the jobs there rely on manual labor or don’t need a huge amount of training, I can easily hire a Colombian or a Venezuelan. Whereas that same Venezuelan who’s coming to the United States maybe doesn’t speak English; doesn’t have the same level of education (even though Venezuelan migrants are pretty highly educated as a group, they’re not as highly educated as Americans are on average); and they come from a different culture. It’s harder, then, for them to come and replace an American in their job.
Even though we have inequality in the U.S., immigrants aren’t competing with locals for jobs. And so you’re not seeing that same labor backlash against immigration that you see in low- and middle-income countries.
So in low- and middle-income countries where the jobs tend to be more low-wage and require fewer skills, migrants coming in are potentially seen as a substitute for local jobs, which leads to stronger voices, at least among labor, in opposition to immigration. But it’s totally different for the capital—for the business owners—who have the opposite incentive.
Right. And interestingly, even though, within the global south, the migrants who come are typically coming from a neighboring country and share cultural and ethnic heritage with the locals, concerns about economic competition can lead people to say things like: “Venezuelans are not like us Colombians. Venezuelans are all a bunch of like socialists who are going to turn Colombia into a socialist republic like Venezuela and our economy is going to collapse.” So economic fears get translated into cultural fears.
What effect do immigrants have on democracy? Do immigrants strengthen democracy or do they weaken democracy?
Concern about immigrants from nondemocratic countries has been around since at least the 1760s. Ben Franklin was writing about Germans coming to Pennsylvania in the 1760s. Thomas Jefferson wrote about it in the late 1700s, that folks coming from authoritarian contexts will corrupt us from the inside. There was concern historically that Catholic immigrants would only follow the pope. So these sorts of concerns are nothing new.
Plenty of scholars have done a lot of research about this topic over a long period of time, and it’s just not true [that immigrants from authoritarian countries hurt democracy]. And it’s not true for two reasons. One is that it’s probably the case that for at least some set of migrants who come to democratic countries, they are specifically coming to democratic countries because they want to live in a democracy, because they want to live in a pluralistic society. They are looking for more freedom than they have at home and so are greatly supportive of our freedoms. Think about Cuban migration in Florida—talk about pro-democracy folks. A lot of the Venezuelans who came earlier are really pro-capitalism, pro-democracy individuals. The Afghans who are coming now want democracy. The Vietnamese who came in the 1960s and 1970s wanted democracy.
Even people who come just for economic reasons pretty quickly learn about the freedoms people have here. It is the case that first-generation immigrants typically vote at lower rates; they don’t get brought in and socialized in the system in the same way that the second generation does. By the second generation, people are voting at the same rates.
Now, you might be saying: but I see a correlation between more immigration and more far-right parties, right? There’s a lot of debate in the literature about whether immigrants are just a scapegoat that is convenient for far-right parties or whether the presence of immigrants is leading to more far-right parties or greater support for various parties. Elias Dinas and coauthors looked at various Greek islands that received, back in the summer of 2015, huge numbers of Syrians and others leaving Turkey, and they found that those islands were much more supportive of the far-right party, Golden Dawn. But other scholars looked at the case of Germany, which settled migrants semi-randomly, and made each city take in a certain amount of Syrian migrants at the same time in 2015. And they found no correlation between more immigrants and support for the Alternative for Germany [a far-right party]. Support for the far-right party in Germany is strongest in the formerly communist eastern areas, minus Berlin, where there aren’t a lot of immigrants.
So the relationship between immigration and the rise of the far right is not clear. It does seem to be the case that people who support far-right parties typically dislike immigration.
For people concerned about the democratic backsliding globally, you make a case in a piece for Lawfare, for accepting immigrants, particularly from authoritarian countries, which you argue can actually help to facilitate the spread of democracy, which is something the U.S. has been committed to for decades.
Right. Countries that have more immigrants going to consolidated democracies are more likely to have peaceful protests back home. They’re more likely to have an opposition to the authoritarian regime that is pro-democratic and peaceful.
Because people come here and learn about democracy. Maybe [they get] asked to join the union at work—and it’s not run by the government. Or you’re being asked to join a PTA association and people are complaining to the principal about a teacher. Or you see in the media that your government was doing all these horrible things that you didn’t know about because they were hiding that information.
And then you spread those ideas back [to the country you came from] through what we call social remittances, which is this idea that immigrants can spread cultural norms.
And migrants, even if they were pro-democracy before, might not have known how to organize. And they might learn how to organize, even from things we don’t think of as being political, like the PTA or organizing a soccer team. There are a lot of immigrant organizations, like worker’s associations and day laborers associations, where people learn how to organize and they can apply that back home.
What are you most worried about in the migration politics space and what are you most encouraged by?
I was most saddened by the recent announcement by the Swedes that they are going to radically cut back on their refugee resettlement program and support for asylum seekers.
The Syrian civil war is still going on, the Venezuelan economy is terrible, there’s still a huge amount of gang violence, there’s the war in Ukraine. There are huge numbers of instability and horrors that are still going on throughout Africa, the Rohingya crisis is still going on in Myanmar. We have a huge need for humanitarian assistance and humanitarian resettlement. And the fact that one of the leaders on this that could have pushed the rest of the EU to be a little bit more open, is now backing away is really depressing.
I am most hopeful about grassroots ways of thinking about migration and migrant rights in the United States.
Some of my colleagues at UCLA are pushing an initiative that the UC system can actually hire undocumented immigrants and that the federal government doesn’t have the right to tell states whether or not they can hire undocumented immigrants. I think we should try it.
I think it’ll get bound up in the courts, but it’s an interesting thing to try. And if we can get it to go through, it would be a real lifeline for a lot of our students who are undocumented. I’ve had plenty of students graduate who are looking at jobs under the table here. They got this great U.S. education and they can’t do anything with it. Initiatives like that and grassroots organizing is what gets me most excited.